Across the country, 2020 was an extremely violent year. In Philadelphia, homicides reached 499 — a 40% increase from 2019 and the second most since 1960. The city wasn’t hurting alone. Across the country there were 4,000 more homicides last year than in 2019. The last few weeks have brought even more violence as two mass shootings, one in metro Atlanta and one in Boulder, Colo., shook the nation. Meanwhile in Philadelphia, less than three full months into the year, 111 people have already been killed and many more shot.
Gun violence can seem intractable — but it doesn’t have to be. There are solutions that can save lives. The Inquirer Opinion team talked to stakeholders in Philly and elsewhere who are working to stop the shootings to get a sense of what can be done to stem the rising tide of violence in our city.
Interviews by Elena Gooray, Erica Palan, and Abraham Gutman. Quotes have been edited lightly for length and clarity.
Expand hospital gun-violence intervention programs
When it comes to the intervention, it begins at the shooting victim’s hospital bedside and it includes community-based case management services, even in the month following the injury. The idea is that this period of hospitalization is a teachable moment, or almost like a golden hour, for getting through to those who are caught up in the cycle of violence. Victims are more receptive to altering their path, in a way that can prevent injury to them, and it also can prevent retaliatory shooting or violence. It can be a break in that cycle. The most effective specialists are able to quickly gain the trust of patients because they are credible messengers. That means they have street smarts, and they know something about the community where that person is coming from. Many also have a history themselves of exposure to violence. Healing Hurt People, which is a Drexel initiative, operates in a few hospitals around the city, and CHOP has a violence intervention program as well, but we need to expand the availability of these programs across our city’s trauma and health-care networks.
And it doesn’t have to just be funded by the city. Maybe more of what will happen is a public-private partnership model. Rigorous evaluation of these programs has demonstrated results, including preventing injury, preventing violent crime, decreasing involvement with the justice system, substance abuse, and decreasing PTSD.
Councilmember Jamie Gauthier represents the city’s Third District.
Fund more community organizations
This is a public health situation that needs to be addressed on all levels. The normal in our society has been poverty, gun violence, disparities in food. That “normal,” what we want to change, is having young men and women be highlighted as that.
[Young Chances] provides services with less of the red tape. If you need free food, you don’t need to worry about bringing all that information — What’s your income? What’s your zip code? How many people live in your house? People don’t want to say: I don’t have an income. There’s 40 people living in my house. I don’t know what my bills are because they all are shut off. For Young Chances, if you want food, school supplies, hygiene materials — just come ask.
From March 2020 to March of this year, we gave out 8,300 hot meals and 426,000 pounds of food with no significant funding, just volunteers.
“There’s no receipt from the City of Philadelphia to show their influence and contribution and financial support for these groups.”
Groups and programs that have multimillion-dollar budgets and initiatives really don’t have the impact that the small organizations throughout the city have on a day-to-day basis. Not through marketing campaigns or the advertising — I’m talking about the house-to-house, porch-to-porch approach that those organizations deal with. Not big community events once, twice a year when it looks good. We’re talking about when they can pick up the phone and call you at 11:30 at night, you can respond at 1 in morning and they understand. Those are the types of programs that are out here and not really supported. There’s no receipt from the City of Philadelphia to show their influence and contribution and financial support for these groups.
Tyrique Glasgow is the founder of the Young Chances Foundation.
Create more residential schools
There’s a kid who gets up every morning, puts his jeans on, puts his white T-shirt on. He puts a gun in his waistband. He walks out the door, and usually travels only in 10 square blocks. He finds someone that looks just like him to shoot. That kid is a product of his environment, and what he did is a form of self-hate. He has to get out of that environment.
When you take a kid out to Podunk, Indiana, and put them in an environment — a false environment where there are cows, no trains, less stress — it will help, but only temporarily, because they have to come back and deal with the same environment they left. [But residential schools, like House of Umoja in West Philly provide] peer counselors, educators, and social workers. In my day, they had an Afrocentric culture to give you a sense of your history, and potentially your future. It all revolved around meals at 5 o’clock and afterward there was a group house meeting to talk about the activities of the day and whatever problems we had. Education from home schools provides one predictable place, and often one safe place.
When you talk about an overnight facility, it is going to cost you a little more on the front end. You need to have house parents. You need to have a pleasant environment. It can’t be a building that looks like a prison. It has to be a building that inspires higher thought.
Councilmember Curtis Jones represents the city’s Fourth District.
Give the families of homicide victims trauma-informed, holistic support
Untreated trauma will perpetuate violence. In a city of this magnitude, the exposure also leads to people responding in unhealthy ways if not treated. So we offer that [for families of homicide victims] through counseling, case management, therapy, support groups, alternative wellness (including dance, meditation, yoga, and art). And families are given a victim service coordinator. From the moment the homicide occurs, [that coordinator] wraps services around them from assisting with funerals, to their emotional state, if there are any safety issues where emergency shelter or relocation is required, or if they need help with permanent housing. One of the major things they focus on is making sure victims’ rights are respected.
If you have a family that is impacted by and exposed to gun violence, their ability to thrive has been lessened because they’re dealing with the emotional pain of loss. When a person is ripped from a family, the trauma left behind stays with them until they process it. If they can’t process it in a healthy way, they develop unhealthy mechanisms to heal or cope. That could be not only anger, but [unhealthy eating habits], drug addiction.
The level of violence our city has had — consider our communities that are being hunted by racist systems, and the pain of the internalized oppression. When you have that and aren’t able to deal with the trauma behind it, it doesn’t stop.
Chantay Love is program director at EMIR Healing Center.
Couple jobs with Cognitive Behavioral Therapy
READI Chicago was an 18-month program that provided cognitive behavioral therapy, transitional jobs, and other social services. Those ingredients, coupled with the power of relationships, is how we’ve been able to see the transitioning of people’s mind-set.
We had to scale down to a 12-month program because that’s what the data are telling us but also because of funding. On average, the cost to support a READI Chicago participant is about $23,000 to $24,000. But that’s nothing in comparison with what we spend on incarceration or for shootings.
“That’s nothing in comparison with what we spend on incarceration or for shootings.”
About 80% of our 1,200 participants have experienced violence, 34% have been shot at least once, and 48% of our participants have been arrested for serious violent crime. So we are working with the right population, which is very critical.
When you compare those who are in our program to a control group, those in the control group are 54 times more likely, on average, to be victims of gun violence. The study is still ongoing, and that is one of the drawbacks of a randomized control trial. It takes time to see the efficacy of your vaccine or your antidote.
[The question for Philadelphia or any city] is where does gun violence really rank in your priorities? Because if it’s a priority, it will be reflected in your budget. If you’re expecting nonprofits to do this work, you really have to provide the financial resources that are needed. There has to be political will.
Eddie Bocanegra is senior director of READI Chicago at Heartland Alliance.
Offer hands-on mentorship, money, and even travel
The Peacemaker Fellowship is a personalized fellowship that we offer and enroll solely those who are actively involved in firearm activity [but have] avoided the reach of the law. All of our fellows, on day one of their 18- to 24-month fellowship, are committed to using a firearm as a conflict resolution tool. And we believe that by taking them through this intensive engagement, we can help them understand that they have more options on the table to address the conflicts that come their way day in and day out.
[Once we find those in the center of gun violence and establish a relationship] we invite them into this fellowship and basically say: We want to hang out with you every day. We want to help you think about short-, medium-, and long-term goals and help you achieve some of your goals. We want to connect you to every available resource.
After six months, you achieve certain goals associated with your “life map,” you can start earning up to $1,000 a month for future life map goal achievement.
Then we take you around the world. We’re going to take you out of this city. The only way you as a Peacemaker Fellow can travel out of the state or country with us is if you’re willing to travel with someone you’re trying to kill and with someone who is trying to kill you who is also a fellow. Since 2010, we’ve been around the world a few times over with rival firearm offenders.
[Berkeley University evaluated our work] and found that 18 to 24 months later, 90% plus are still alive and 90% plus haven’t been injured by a firearm since becoming a fellow. That’s huge. Then high 70% of these guys are not a suspect in a new firearm crime that is 24 months out of their fellowship.
DeVone Boggan is founder and CEO of Advance Peace in Richmond, Calif.
Listen to young people when they tell you what they need
Investment in young people is directly related to gun violence. We’re about elevating not just the teen voice, but truly being youth-led. We’re giving young people a safe space not just to be, but to be themselves — making sure that our space is relevant culturally, and to what young people want and need today. So they can come and hang out, but also get the things they need. If they need an ID, a job, we can help. We’re big on putting money into not only paying young people and giving them economic opportunities, but training them in things like conflict resolution, peer mediation models directly related to what happens in your neighborhood. And the biggest thing for us is consistency. We go back [to the same places] all the time.
When it comes to the juvenile justice system, when they have our support, there’s been way less violations when it comes to probation. [The young people] are reconnected with school, able to get jobs. We had one person, 19, who was shot at over four times in a year, has two kids under the age of 3. His support is super-limited. We got his referral from the Juvenile Justice Center when he was released, and he got to us last October. By January he had graduated high school.
And the other big thing is, we’re not court-ordered. Young people want to come to us. We don’t force them do anything, because we believe when you try to force them to do these things they’re not going to do it, until they’re ready.
Kendra Van de Water is the founder of YEAH Philly.
Get powerful people from all sides in one room to talk solutions
None of us can do this by ourselves. It is going to take a collective effort and tackling this crisis from different angles. I want to get the different people who are in positions of power and in the community — our community leaders, state electeds, clergy, law enforcement, gun-rights advocates, and city officials — into a room and have a conversation about what each of us can do in our roles/positions to bring about change.
By having people come together, we can figure out a plan. We cannot just keep pointing the finger and saying who should be doing what. We need to bring the various people and groups to the table … folks who are ready to get stuff done!
“It is like we are looking and waiting to see who is going to do what or how are they going to respond to the crisis.”
Gun violence is becoming the normal, which is not cool. We can show up at crime scenes and talk about what needs to stop. But what are we doing? That is the big question. It is like we are looking and waiting to see who is going to do what or how are they going to respond to the crisis. As leaders — community and electeds — we have to put our egos to the side to get the work done. These conversations will be a step in the right direction to getting real, concrete solutions to protect our communities.
State Rep. Amen Brown represents the 190th District of Pennsylvania.
Stop putting gun violence in a silo and treat the root causes
Gun violence is a symptom of what has been historic and systemic divestment from the communities that are the most vulnerable to gun violence. Poverty, poor education, white supremacy, redlining are all the things that are root causes.
I’ve seen it piecemeal [in other cities]. I think about what Stockton, California, and Columbia, South Carolina, are doing about giving people a universal basic income. They’re working with, specifically with Black fathers in Columbia, South Carolina. We’re in conversations with READI Chicago right now, which is a cognitive behavioral health program that also has transitional workforce and mentorship. Similar to READI Chicago, you have Devone Boggan in Richmond, California, who has Advance Peace [an organization that gives money to vulnerable community members as a reward for their abstaining from crime].
[If we’re successful in treating the root causes of gun violence], we’d feel like we are a unified city. I think that everyone, regardless of their political affiliation, will believe that what communities suffer from in terms of poverty, or lack of opportunity, is all of our problems.
Erica D. Atwood is senior director of the Office of Policy and Strategic Initiatives for Criminal Justice & Public Safety for the City of Philadelphia.
Create non-punitive curfew centers
Edwin Desamour is a behavior specialist for the seventh grade at John B. Stetson Charter School.
There used to be curfew centers, like one on Somerset years ago, where police could bring teenagers found outside after curfew. Folks there would contact their families and start the process of getting the kids back home. It was a way for the city to start identifying agencies that could provide further support when the need came up.
When I’m dealing with community folks and community residents, they’re complaining about kids that are 12, 13, 14 years old, [some older], or even younger than 10, in the streets after 9 and 10 o’clock. Those are the times these kids can get in trouble when they are heavily influenced by certain folks. If we could find a way to reinstate a curfew with these centers, also working alongside the police, we could provide a valuable support system that would be a deterrent to many of these behaviors. It also serves as an alternative to arrest: Pick them up and drop them off at a curfew center instead, where people can find out what is happening in their home and provide services in a different way. That [program] always stuck out to me for years, and I don’t know why it stopped.
“What’s going on with you as a person? How can we provide a safety net?”
I don’t want kids punished. But it’s kind of like the saying it takes a village to raise a child. Are the villages there? If they drop your kid off to the center, there’s a village already there. No one’s yelling at this kid. I think the approach could be different.
We can talk about guns all day long, but to me it’s [about] a mentality. What makes you want to pick up that gun and pull that trigger? What’s going on with you as a person? How can we provide a safety net?