The Washington Post ran a front-page story this Sunday about one of the least acknowledged costs of living with chronic violence: young men who suffer spinal cord injuries and paralysis from gunshot wounds. As the Post article states, those who are killed get newspaper stories, memorial services, and RIP t-shirts, but little attention is paid to those who survive but are permanently damaged. The Post article paints a compelling picture of the struggles these young men face and the price they pay in physical hardship and lost opportunities. The economic costs to them—and to the taxpayers who pay for their lifelong care—are significant.
Through our work on the HOST Demonstration, we are learning powerful—and sad—lessons about the kinds of damage that living with chronic violence does to communities, especially to the children who live there. In addition to the risk of being killed or injured from gang fights, shootings, or omnipresent domestic violence, a living with fear has very real psychic costs. These costs are evident in the high levels of depression and substance use and in the academic struggles of children and youth.
One of our HOST sites is the Chicago Housing Authority’s (CHA) Altgeld Gardens public housing development, an isolated community on the far south side of the city that is home to 700 families, 200 of whom are participating in HOST. Early findings from our baseline survey of these families show clear indications of distress: nearly 30 percent of youth participants have been suspended or expelled and one in five has been held back a grade in school; 3 percent report being arrested. HOST case managers report overwhelming demand for the clinical counseling services they are offering for both children and adults. Trauma and grief are the main reasons participants give for seeking help. Many have lost family members to violence or, like the young men in the Post article, are coping with the aftermath. Youth who participated in our focus groups spoke of the fear that keeps them inside their apartments—boys fearing getting into fights, girls fearing sexual pressure and harassment from men.
HOST, with its intensive dual-generation service model, is seeking to mitigate the consequences of living with trauma and disadvantage. But the reality is that truly improving the life chances for HOST children will take a concentrated effort to address the factors that contribute to the cycle of chronic violence that has such high costs for Altgeld families—and for us all.