The voices of Urban Institute's researchers and staff
November 26, 2013

Broken community trust enhances chronic violence

November 26, 2013

    HOST_altgeldGardensViolence


Interviewer: “What happens after a fight [in Altgeld Gardens]?”

David (age 16): “You keep going, you just keep pushing.”

Stacie (mother of teenagers in Altgeld Gardens): “There was so much violence around here and most of the moms have teenagers.… [A few mothers] started a club called Altgeld Mothers Against Violence, and so few people showed up. We put fliers everywhere, and no one came.… I don’t know if they’re afraid. If we stop the violence now and get the kids in order, then we won’t have to do something when your kids get shot.”


Chronic violence, in combination with socioeconomic and racial inequality, has devastating impacts on youth and families: victimization, isolation, poor mental health, hopelessness, and, in some instances, forced participation in gangs to ensure survival. In a  previous post, I petitioned policymakers to face these challenges head-on and invest in programs and mental health services in urban communities.

The Housing Opportunity and Services Together (HOST) Demonstration does just that. It provides troubled families in four public and mixed-income housing developments with case management, mental health services, and youth programming to improve individuals’ lives and decrease levels of community violence and disorder. However, our conversations and surveys with families in the Chicago HOST site, Altgeld Gardens, reveal a lack of trust between neighbors and a lack of community action that increases violence and keeps families from using services to reach their individual goals.

When trying to understand why communities like Altgeld Gardens have higher levels of violence, we often point to neighborhood poverty, the quality of local services, and social networks. But another factor may be more important. A neighborhood’s cohesiveness and trust, or what Robert Sampson calls collective efficacy, encourages residents faced with persistent violence to take action and intervene for the common good. When it’s missing, many, like 16-year-old David and other Altgeld residents “just keep pushing” as violence consumes their neighborhood.

Altgeld’s community dissension also precludes families’ progress. Only a quarter of Altgeld parents believe their neighbors can be trusted—43 percent fewer than parents in the average Chicago neighborhood. This clearly broken community trust, according to case managers, keeps adults from attending urgently needed group classes or activities such as counseling, health services, and GED classes.

Altgeld youth don’t feel safe and protected enough to leave their homes and attend HOST’s after-school programs and youth groups because of the potential for bullying. “Too many people [shoot] at each other,” one teen said. And unlike youth in other communities, children here don’t see their neighbors as a protective factor against this potential victimization. Thirty-nine percent say neighbors don’t look out for each other, compared with 29 percent nationally.

In Chicago, HOST attempts to gradually build Altgeld residents’ mutual trust and defense mechanisms against violence by nurturing a sense of community among residents who are making progress together. Case managers and concerned parents have joined together to create a “human bus” that escorts young people to HOST events, establishing a sense of community protection. Service providers also host quarterly community-wide parties to celebrate youth achievements, bring families out of isolation, and develop a positive neighborhood culture. We hope these small efforts will eventually help galvanize community action against violence.

Photo illustration by Tim Meko, Urban Institute; Source image from Flickr user cpentecost (CC BY-NC 2.0)

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