NeighborRelief/Halt Violence: Nonprofits unite to help those in need, at risk

A. Kevin Corvo
ThisWeek group
Justin Pickens (right) is one of the clients assisted by Thell Robinson, founder and CEO of Halt Violence, and NeighborRelief.

Justin Pickens, a single father of two boys, realizes what’s at stake and knows where to find the resources and guidance he needs so that he doesn’t forget.  

With the help of two central Ohio organizations, NeighborRelief and Halt Violence, the 31-year-old north Columbus resident is at a point in his life he didn’t think possible after waking up Christmas morning in 2017 to discover the mother of his sons, Justin Jr. and Jaylen, had died in her sleep from cardiac arrest.  

“As long as I keep moving in the right direction, they’ll be OK,” Pickens said of his two sons, who now are 7 and 6 years old. 

They live together in an apartment in north Columbus as Pickens keeps on the straight and narrow with help from Halt Violence and NeighborRelief.

Halt Violence, founded in 2014, helps steer people away from violence by providing tutoring, mentoring, counseling and employment assistance, said founder and CEO Thell Robinson. 

NeighborRelief is a fundraising platform with nearly 30 member nonprofits that was founded in April 2020 and unites several nonprofit organizations to funnel financial assistance for those with specific needs.  

Halt Violence is one of nonprofits associated with NeighborRelief. 

Pickens was on parole for drug-related offenses and was living with his sons and their mother when her death “traumatized” him.  

Pickens violated his parole and was sent back to Mansfield Correctional Institution, where he finished his prison term and was released last August. That’s when he was encouraged by an acquaintance to contact Halt Violence to find a path away of the streets. Robinson said he was able to get Pickens a job at a warehouse, making $12 an hour.

The Halt Violence staff works from a basement office at East Broad and South 18th streets, just east of downtown Columbus. Halt Violence has five paid staff members and expects to add a sixth, but Robinson is the only full-time employee. 

Robinson, 48, describes the organization's mission as “saving lives (by) squashing beefs.”  

Sometimes this means intervening before another life is lost, Robinson said.  

He and a “street mentor” weave through a matrix of what is heard, overheard, repeated and retold on street corners, at convenience stores and parks to learn what kinds of problems – or  “beefs” as Robinson calls them – might be at a near boil.  

If possible, a meeting is arranged among those involved to discuss the issue – real or perceived – at the office of Halt Violence.  

“There is no disrespect, just level conversation,” said Robinson, who acknowledged that some situations can’t be resolved, but in many instances they can.  

And thus, he said, Halt Violence achieves its mission.  

Robinson said he is distressed about the record number of homicides in the city of Columbus last year – 174 – which was 31 more than the previous high of 143 in 2017. He also is concerned about the continuing pace of killings this year – 50 through April 4.  

“If we can squash a beef, (homicide detectives) don’t go to the yellow tape,” Robinson said.  

But if that's the case, Thell or someone from Halt Violence also tries to be there. 

The goal then is to make sure the violence does not escalate, Robinson said.  

Sometimes information is gleaned that can be used to try to prevent retaliation – information that Robinson said sometimes isn’t shared and sometimes isn’t well-received by police working the case.  

“I don’t dance to their tune,” he said, adding that sometimes it's necessary to work around police involvement to “squash a beef."  

“We see, but we don’t see," Robinson said. "We hear, but we don’t hear, and that’s the only way it can work."  

Sgt. James Fuqua with the Columbus Division of Police said the department had no comment about Robinson's descriptions of his group's methods. 

Robinson describes his effort “as a call from God that He downloaded in me” in 2005, one that Pickens is glad he answered.  

“He’s genuine. He’s been where I’ve been,” Pickens said.  

Robinson speaks about his own life on the streets of Washington, D.C., and the nearly seven-year incarceration he had served before arriving in central Ohio.  

Robinson said he was on the streets in 1991 when the district recorded 489 murders, and he began "hustling drugs." 

"Being new to the drug game and recently having an additional baby on the way, I wanted change for myself because I wasn't raised this way by my mom. So I left D.C. and came to Columbus to attend college," Robinson said. 

But with another child on the way, Robinson said he dropped out and began dealing drugs in Columbus. 

Robinson said he was incarcerated for the unlawful possession of a firearm as he was a felon for the drug-related convictions, he said. 

While incarcerated, he earned an associate's degree in theology and eventually a bachelor's degree. 

"The system and society can't figure out how I'm doing what I'm doing, but it is God that is doing it through me. The system doesn't want Black males to succeed in life upon the release of the debt that they paid to society. With humility, I'm a walking testimony and inspiration to every Black male that comes out of incarceration," said Robinson, who in May will have been out of prison for 10 years. 

Returning to Columbus was not his first choice upon his release, Robinson said. 

"I didn't want to come back to Columbus because I wasn't hustling drugs anymore, and I have no family here,” said Robinson, who has published books about his journey through his company, Cashmere Publications, and speaks about his experiences to students in Columbus City Schools and to inmates of the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction. “But God wanted me to come back to help the streets that I once corrupted. I had no choice but to be obedient. Halt Violence is squashing beefs and saving lives. I can't argue with a God that has preserved my life when I could be dead or doing life in prison. But he found mercy with me. 

“I’ve been around the worst of the worst. I don’t judge; I have lived that life.”  

Robinson said he is grateful for the support from NeighborRelief to help those with living expenses, another crucial component of avoiding a life of crime. 

Robinson recounted an instance in which NeighborRelief had raised the money a man needed on the same day, a gesture that Robinson believes might have prevented the man from committing a robbery to obtain what his family had needed. 

The founding of NeighborRelief stems from the Columbus-based Wells Foundation, founded by Tony Wells to increase philanthropy in communities throughout the country.   

At the onset of the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic last spring, Wells said, he called for a meeting of leaders of other large nonprofit organizations to assess how to assist the growing number of people in need.  

The result was NeighborRelief, and the platform allows the member nonprofits to share specific stories about their clients and for that assistance to be allocated, Wells said.  

The Wells Foundation contributed $150,000 to launch the technology platform to support the program. 

NeighborRelief would not be possible without additional funding from United Way, the Columbus Foundation and others, Wells said.  

Anyone who wants to help can view client stories at NeighborRelief.com, which also offers ways to assist by, for example, paying a utility bill on behalf of a client.  

Since its launch last summer, the number of nonprofits registering to share clients’ stories through NeighborRelief has continued to grow in size and scope to include organizations from outside central Ohio, Wells said.  

“Those people (who help) are finding it motivating to learn about the person they are helping (and) and how it can begin to change their life for the better,” Wells said.  

kcorvo@thisweeknews.com  

@ThisWeekCorvo