ST. PETERSBURG — A new initiative aimed at preventing gun violence in the city was unveiled Wednesday, one that will go door-to-door.
The Hidden Voices Project is a collaboration between the city of St. Petersburg’s Urban Affairs department and People Empowering & Restoring Communities, or PERC, a nonprofit aimed at supporting ex-offenders with education and resources.
“It’s no secret that our city, our communities, our nation has experienced an upsurge in gun violence,” said City Council member Deborah Figgs-Sanders at a news conference announcing the program. “But who has that violence impacted the most? Have we heard those voices?”
The project will try to reach those most impacted by the recent shootings by creating a street team of community members — including the formerly incarcerated — who will go door-to-door to meet with young people who are among the most vulnerable in the city’s predominantly Black community.
The team will give them resource maps and help them access mental health resources and job programs. City leaders hope that by connecting residents with more support and resources that will help curb violence.
The new program builds on top of the Enough is Enough campaign to end gun violence, which was organized by Figgs-Sanders and fellow council member Lisa Wheeler-Bowman in December. This time organizers want to bring in more voices of those directly impacted by violence and the criminal justice system.
“Those closest to the problem are the ones closest to the solution,” said Matt Byrd, a community activist and project leader. The “hidden voices,” he said, are the voices of those who are hurting, but aren’t seeking help. Those are the people missing from community conversations and gun violence rallies.
“People don’t know the resources that are out there,” said Byrd.
The scope of the project is still in the planning phase. This week, leaders are working to identify which community resources are available and would be the most effective to share with residents. They’ll curate that list and create a guide for the street team to hand out.
“We’re here to use our platforms to help those who feel helpless,” Figgs-Sanders said. The city’s Urban Affairs department is the primary funder for the pilot program, offering a $99,000 one-year grant.
The news conference announcing the project was held along 16th Street S, near the lot where 23-year-old mother of two Arnieceia Milton was shot and killed and blocks from the Food Max grocery store, the scene of a number of shootings.
Some community members who have been a part of People Empowering & Restoring Communities’ Tiny Homes Program — which teaches construction trades to those returning to society after incarceration — will be part of the Hidden Voices street team.
Damien Wiggins, a 41-year-old father from St. Petersburg, lost his son a year ago to gun violence. He found his son’s body in a vacant lot before the cops arrived. Now, he’s getting involved as a member of the street team and owns his own business remodeling homes.
JacQuis Monroe was in and out of prison from 1998 to 2013. Back then, there were no older men helping guide his path, he said. And for Monroe, the impacts of gun violence hit close. His best friend was shot and killed 100 feet away from him.
“My main focus now is the young kids,” said Monroe. He builds homes with the Tiny Homes Program and will work with the Hidden Voices project.
St. Petersburg resident Odale Nolton, 35, has been involved with People Empowering & Restoring Communities for three years. One day, two houses down from a tiny home project he was building, shots rang out. He is also working with the new street team project.
The street team is slated to start going out and providing resources next week.
“There is no single victim when it comes to gun violence,” said Figgs-Sanders. “It’s going to take a village.”
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