Marilyn "Melina" Collins was strung out and desperate, a 98-pound skeleton of her former self. She was turning tricks to support her addiction and take care of her 4-year-old daughter, Messiah.

She needed help but didn't know where to turn.

Then, one night last June, she saw men wearing white jackets standing on International Boulevard and 78th Avenue in East Oakland. One of them offered her a lifeline. She reached for it and hasn't let go.

"There was an angel in front of me, and Pastor Jasper's army put me in touch with the Lord," she said. "If it wasn't for him, I wouldn't be here today."

That would be the Rev. Jasper Lowery, a member of the Measure Y street outreach teams.

The men in white jackets, who form the city's three-street outreach teams, know it's a gamble venturing into some of the most dangerous parts of Oakland at night dressed in lightweight Windbreakers. The jackets aren't bulletproof or stylish. Rather, the uniforms are nonthreatening and make the outreach workers easy to spot as they try to bring peace and positive changes to the community.

Lowery and other members say it's worth the risk if they can help at-risk youths step away from a dead-end life of drugs, guns and violence.

The outreach workers canvass the streets of West and East Oakland from 5 p.m. to 2 a.m. Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights, offering advice about jobs, training and education.

They slowly build relationships, mentor and connect with young men and women they meet in the community, whom they call "loved ones." Sometimes just their presence brings hope.

"It's just like therapy," said Kevin Grant, the violence prevention network coordinator hired by the city to oversee the outreach teams. "(The youths) get a chance to tell their problems to someone, and they know someone cares."

However, building that rapport took a lot of patience and time.

Not trusted at first

When the outreach teams first set foot in Oakland a little more than a year ago, they raised eyebrows. Grant said many people were standoffish, distrustful of the police and afraid they might be asked to snitch.

That distrust gave way to curiosity as the teams went back again and again. Eventually the men became familiar faces. It also helped that some team members shared with young people personal stories about their own mistakes, past experiences or criminal histories.

"We call it a slow dance," Grant said. "We go out there with resources, with understanding and an open heart. We ask, What can we do to help you get off the blocks?"

Today, the 20 outreach workers deployed in Oakland as a part of Mayor Ron Dellums' overall public safety strategy are a fixture on the streets. The outreach workers are employed by Healthy Oakland in West Oakland, California Youth Outreach in central Oakland and Youth Uprising in East Oakland.

Measure Y, a parcel tax that raises about $20 million a year to fund Fire Department operations, community police officers and a range of anti-violence and re-entry programs, pays for the outreach teams. Although the city budget hasn't been finalized, this year the program will receive $777,000, which includes Grant's salary.

The men travel to "hot spots," or areas identified by police as notorious for prostitution, drugs, and gun and gang violence, looking for their clients — mainly young men caught up in a life of crime.

They find them on West Oakland street corners in the Lower Bottoms and Ghost Town, or in Latino gang turf from Lake Merritt to High Street and International Boulevard, or East Oakland's flatlands along the MacArthur corridor from 73rd to 105th avenues.

No matter how many times they've visited, it's a gamble every time they head out, added West Oakland team member Eli Austen, especially if they are directed somewhere because there have been shootings or killings nearby.

They always look for a familiar face among the people hanging out, someone who they can make contact with and ease the tension.

"We depend on each other, and we have our signs and we have different things that we do," Austen said. "We watch our backs and be wise. If it gets too rough out there, we (are) moving.

"Last week we were walking, and I started to think about Iraq. I'm not going to say where we were, but you could feel the people looking at us," he said.

The reward for their efforts comes when the phone starts ringing, when somebody they helped has helped another by passing along their number or card. Parolees are stunned to find out they can get a job, and word of that travels fast. The outreach teams planted the seeds, and now they are being cultivated, Austen said.

"I come from the streets. I been there. I know what they are going through. I see it in their eyes; I seen it myself," Austen said. "People that don't have hope, we give them hope."

Noticeable difference

Police Capt. Anthony Toribio, area commander for West Oakland, said there are still areas where crime is a chronic problem, but the outreach teams have made a noticeable difference.

"The outreach these men have done has changed lives and saved lives," Toribio said. "They have intervened on at least half a dozen individuals, men who have been hanging on the corner and getting in the mix, and they are no longer out there; they are working. And I think, for each person (the teams have reached), how many others will not be victims, and how many calls our officers will not have to go out for, and the difference that has made to the families of these men."

Although violent crime is down this year compared with last year at this time, Sara Bedford, policy and planning manager for Oakland's Measure Y violence prevention programs, says it's still too early to definitely credit the Outreach teams for the reduction.

"When you use homicide data, a single weekend can completely transform those numbers," she said. "Measure Y is an answer, but it's only one piece of the puzzle."

Interim police Chief Howard Jordan admitted that the officers were skeptical at first, but no longer, now that the beat officers are seeing the benefit of the outreach.

The teams share no information with the police, and the police don't expect them to, Jordan said. Beat officers give Grant the locations where crime has spiked and intervention is needed, and that's as far as it goes. By mutual agreement, the police stay away when the outreach teams are on a certain street.

"They do things "... that we can't do," Jordan said. "When people see police come around, they won't talk to us."

At first the teams introduced themselves to the neighborhood, meeting people on corners and listening to their needs and problems. They connect them with jobs, housing, help with kicking drug and alcohol addictions, or ways to mend fences with family. They intervene with police and parolees as advocates for the "loved ones" when needed. They also receive training to identify youths who may have been sexually exploited and victims of human trafficking.

They hand out their cell phone numbers and tell the "loved ones" to call anytime, especially if they are thinking about doing something they shouldn't, or if they're in trouble.

Parolees were concerned they would be lumped into a group or stereotyped as bad and extremely dangerous people after four police officers were slain in March by parolee Lovelle Mixon. Many of them would like to improve the relationships they have with police, follow the terms of their probation and turn around their lives. The outreach teams are working to help change the negative perception of parolees by connecting them with jobs and community service programs.

What's next?

The next challenge for the street outreach teams is to identify more opportunities for intensive case management and job training, particularly in the budding area of green jobs.

Collins is one of the early success stories, and proof that an intensive, collaborative case management approach works.

When Lowery met Collins she was "highly intoxicated" on heroin and methadone. Now, she's off the drug, she has put on weight and is hardly resembles the woman who climbed aboard the Measure Y bus that fateful night last summer.

Collins recently received her certificate in culinary arts from St. Vincent de Paul and is looking for work. She is about to move out of transitional housing and into her own place. She and her boyfriend, whom she met through the ministry, hope to marry next year.

"Melina is our miracle," Lowery said. "She's on her way."

That is not to say it isn't a struggle to give up the drugs. It is, every day.

Collins said she keeps her eyes on the goal, tries to be positive and surround herself with positive people, and keeps moving forward, not looking back.

"Some people aren't ready to take (the help), but I was tired, sick and tired, of my living situation and all that," Collins said. "Some people need love. They reached out and I grabbed on."

Reach Cecily Burt at 510-208-6441 or cburt@bayareanewsgroup.com. Check out her blog at www.ibabuzz.com/westside.

Where to get help
  • Measure Y Violence Prevention Programs: 510 238-3708 or www.measurey.org
  • Healthy Oakland: 510-444-9655
  • America Works: 510-891-9100