Police cars and yellow caution tape line the intersection of Alabama Avenue and Congress Street SE on a Monday night in August. A young man named Stephon Hooks has been shot in the leg and is on his way to Washington Hospital Center. D.C. police are milling around, a few taking notes or looking for shell casings. The shooting is one of more than 60 that took place in August.
Ronald Moten has already visited the crime scene. He’s now a few blocks away, driving his Yukon Denali and monitoring the situation via BlackBerry. Moten isn’t a police officer; he’s not even a city employee. He’s a co-founder of the nonprofit youth services group Peaceoholics. When someone in D.C. is shot, he’s often the first to hear about it.
Moments after hearing about the shooting, the 39-year-old Moten and two of his employees, ex-felons tasked with violence intervention and youth outreach, have started an investigation. They want to find the shooter, or at least the person who everyone thinks pulled the trigger. Because if there’s one thing Moten knows, it’s that one shooting begets another. Stopping that scenario from playing out is the core of Moten’s mission as leader of Peaceoholics, a name they define as people “addicted to peace.”
If you’re not familiar with Moten and his group, you’re not familiar with crime in the District. When asked who’s in charge of the scene at Alabama and Congress, an officer replies, “Probably that dude from Peaceoholics; he’s the big boss around here.” Standing nearby, a police lieutenant says she has no idea what Moten is doing. “He didn’t speak to me or any of my officers,” she says.
That’s because Moten is wired at the upper echelons of the city bureaucracy. He bypasses mid-level law enforcement and handles his business at street level, where his word is his bond. And with 50 or so ex-felons on his payroll, who he can dispatch at any hour of the day or night to quash a beef between rival crews or stop a school shooting, Moten has tentacles into communities that distrust the government and the police. Founded on the idea that no one can talk to misguided youth like a “returned citizen,” as the group refers to ex-felons, Peaceoholics display an evangelical zeal not commonly found in the grass-roots nonprofit sector. Their mantra is: “It’s not a job; it’s a ministry.”
Moten is one minister who doesn’t wait for permission from above before acting. Asked if the city has abdicated public safety and social services responsibilities to Peaceoholics, he puts it like this: “They don’t abdicate nothing to us. When we first went into the schools [to quell violence] they didn’t ask us to come in; we went in. The police or the mayor, they don’t tell us what to do; God tells us what to do. We don’t work for the government; the government works for us.”
That’s certainly how a Peaceoholics detractor would frame the situation. Since 2005, Peaceoholics has received more than $10 million in grants and loans from the D.C. government and agencies that work closely with the city on youth social services. Most of that money, about $500,000 per month, goes toward salaries, expenses and rent for the group’s office in Southeast D.C.
Proving expert at wringing cash out of the public sector, Moten is getting Peaceoholics into real estate. In May, the group snared a $5 million loan on bargain terms from the D.C. Department of Housing and Community Development. The idea is to renovate three multi-unit buildings in low-income areas into affordable housing for youths transitioning out of detention. If all goes according to plan, public dollars ordinarily spent on individual kids for a variety of social services will end up in Peaceoholics’ coffers as they serve those same kids in a privately owned local setting.
Yet just what Peaceoholics does with its grants has surfaced as a public issue twice in 2009. In March, the administration of Mayor Adrian M. Fenty decided to donate a fire engine and ambulance to the Dominican Republic without the approval of the D.C. Council. A crony of the mayor enlisted Moten to get Peaceoholics to act as a conduit for the donation, which has taken on the look of a mini-scandal involving Caribbean junkets for allies of the Fenty administration. The whole affair is now under investigation by the D.C. Inspector General’s Office. “I know for a fact that nothing was done wrong,” says Moten.
And just last month, Peaceoholics mentor Barry Harrison was convicted of five counts of enticing a minor and sexual assault in connection with his work at Spingarn High School. Harrison, it turns out, had been convicted of murder in the 1980s and was released from prison in 2006. Moten claimed a police background check went back only 10 years. Moten has vowed to push for appeal of the conviction.
There’s a reason, though, why Harrison was roaming Spingarn without supervision and why Peaceoholics is getting sweetheart loan terms from DHCD, why city agencies simply throw money at the group.
It’s because D.C. can’t handle its young. The list of D.C. agencies in charge of ministering to kids—Child and Family Services Agency, Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services, D.C. Public Schools—is also a list of some of the city’s famously dysfunctional bureaucracies—fumbling, often corrupt entities that have repeatedly failed their “customers.”
Enter Moten, a tireless, charismatic and sometimes aggressive whirlwind of a man who has established a rapport with D.C. youth. This very mismatch—the city’s ineffectiveness and Moten’s skillfulness—has provided a great market opportunity for Peaceoholics. As city agencies avoided street-level intervention, Moten’s 70-employee group soaked up millions of public dollars.
Richard Norman, an advisory board member of the Salvation Army, says, “When there’s something good, Ron goes for it. He doesn’t always do extensive due diligence. But I tell him, when you have good intentions, and you make a mistake, then all is forgiven. I have a lot of admiration for him. He’s got 20 cakes baking in the oven as we speak—and you don’t know about 19 of them.”
Moten puts the matter in simpler terms. “We on the ground with the people,” he says shortly after the Congress Street shooting. “We know what’s going on; we in the trenches. There’s nobody else in the city doing this to the degree we are. No-body.”
And on this night, Moten and his cohorts are looking to back up those words. In fact, they’ve already figured out where to find the prime suspect.