Troy Harris’ morning routine is a familiar one — quick shower, quick bite to eat, quick search for car keys before rushing out the door.
Except before he can start his day as a cook in Penn’s kosher dining program, where he has worked for 17 years, Harris also has to carry his 18-year-old son, paralyzed after being shot in 2018, down the stairs of their South Philadelphia home.
This has been Harris’ reality for more than a year now, ever since a gunman turned the family’s life upside down.
Slim, with a youthful smile framed by a salt-and-pepper beard, Harris bears Azir’s weight down their stairs every morning and back up again at night, and in and out of the family car for doctor’s appointments or the occasional outing.
If he doesn’t, his son is mostly confined to the small room at the top of the stairs that he shares with an older brother. A brother that sometimes helps carry Azir, too. That is, unless Azir’s adolescent rebellion kicks in and he uses his wheelchair cushion to scoot himself down the stairs, an act of independence that could lead to injury.
Azir was struck on Feb. 15, 2018, the day after the Parkland, Fla., high school shooting. While the nation’s attention was trained on the horrific attack that many hoped would finally lead to a political reckoning on gun violence, the Harris family were grappling with their own tragedy.
Their home in the Wilson Park housing development had always been cramped for a family of eight, but after Azir was shot, it seemed to shrink overnight. Even if they got some modifications — a wheelchair ramp for the few stairs in and out of the house, a chair lift so he can move between the first and second floors — the home just a few blocks from where he was shot isn’t ideal.
The thought of being so close to the place where Azir almost lost his life. Who could stand that?
The oversize furniture in the living room that once made the house feel homey now limits his movements in his wheelchair. Sometimes his friends will come over to take him out. But most of the time he settles into his bed to play games, or on the couch to watch TV.
He sleeps. A lot. “We’re watching our son sleep his life away,” his mom, Debra, said the other day, as they sat on the couch.
In sleep, Azir doesn’t have to think about how before the shooting he’d run up and down the stairs, in and out of the house to go to school, hang out with friends.
He was walking to a store near their home with two friends to grab something to eat when gunfire rang out.
All three teens were struck. Azir got it worst, hit five times in the crossfire of neighborhood beefs that are turning increasingly deadly. The shooting is still under investigation.
Since the shooting, the family has been hoping to relocate to another housing development with accessible housing, but as my colleague David Gambacorta and I found, accessible housing tops the long list of lifelong challenges that shooting victims face.
Richard Castaldo, shot and paralyzed during the 1999 Columbine High School massacre, just recently found a wheelchair-accessible apartment after years of searching.
After being shot and paralyzed while protecting three children in a barbershop a month before Azir was shot, Jalil Frazier and his family finally gave up finding a place in Philadelphia. They moved into a one-level home in New Jersey.
Philadelphia’s old and narrow housing stock doesn’t always lend itself to accessibility, especially not at working-family prices. The Philadelphia Housing Authority said that the waiting time for fully accessible public housing varies by the number of bedrooms. In almost all cases, they said, the wait time is no longer than three years.
But three years might as well be a lifetime.
In the year since Azir was shot, the family said the development’s site manager has offered few options. One, which they are waiting to hear more about, means separating the family into multiple units. Another was an apartment right behind where Azir was shot.
“That would take us closer to the crime scene," Debra said. “Closer to where he almost lost his life.”
After nearly two decades, Troy says he still makes only enough to live from paycheck to paycheck from Bon Appetit, which runs the dining program in Hillel’s Falk Dining Commons. The family is stretched to a breaking point after paying for medical supplies not covered by insurance. His wife had to leave her nursing-home job to care for Azir. The older kids who work chip in where they can.
“Can you put this in the paper?” Troy asks, just home from work and weary. “If we could find a reasonable Realtor that will work with a working family, I would love to talk to them. Whatever I can do, I will work for it. I will try my hardest to get my family out.”
Azir may be the one who can’t leave a chair, but the whole family feels trapped.