Growing up in Benning Terrace
Washington, DC, is a city where the gap between the rich and the poor is as extreme as in parts of the developing world. Just across the Anacostia River from the Capitol and the affluent communities of Capitol Hill, you find block after block of communities suffering all the ills of “concentrated disadvantage”—racial segregation, poverty, high rates of incarceration, and dismal health statistics. The city has one of the best-educated, most affluent populations anywhere—and in the neighborhoods east of the river, the highest rates of HIV infection in the nation.
To help combat these disadvantages in one DC community, we are launching a Housing Opportunities and Services Together (HOST) site in Benning Terrace, a public housing development that is home to more than 200 extremely poor African-American households. Benning has a notorious history of gang- and drug-related violence and, although it is just a short drive from the Capitol, it feels extremely isolated. It sits next to other subsidized and public housing communities and, on one side, a neighborhood of small single-family homes. We spent two days in Benning getting to know the community and service providers and came away with new understanding of the factors that make DC such a hot spot for HIV and other STI’s. Benning is a place where it is difficult to get residents to talk about the risks that affect women, particularly sexual harassment and dating violence—not because these events are so traumatizing, but because they have become so ordinary.
I’ve written about this phenomenon before, but what we learned in Benning Terrace really highlighted what happens when concentrated disadvantage and low collective efficacy create what we’ve labeled a “coercive sexual environment.” The service providers and residents we spoke to talked readily about gang violence and the crisis that high rates of incarceration have created for the men in their community, but it was much harder to get them to talk about the sexualized violence and harassment that primarily affects girls. Once they did, they described a situation that is unimaginable in the more affluent Washington on the other side of the river—a community where it is normal to warn young girls not to ask older guys to buy them treats from the local store because the men will expect sexual favors from them when they get a little older, for girls to know no other way to get positive attention other than to flaunt their sexuality, and for kids to have no idea how to have healthy, non-sexual friendships. In Benning, domestic violence is such a pervasive problem that the group we spoke to couldn’t imagine being able to do anything about it—it was easier for them to think about reducing gang violence than to deal with the bigger, day-to-day problem.
HOST, with its intensive dual-generation service model, is seeking to interrupt this cycle of disadvantage, particularly the mechanisms that place girls at risk. But it is clear that helping Benning become a healthy community will require a partnership of its residents and dedicated service providers who can take on the big challenges that continue to undermine the life chances of every child who lives there.