With jobs growing even more scarce and the church, school, nonprofit and government safety nets that typically hold communities together strained by the pandemic, a growing sense of hopelessness has emerged, one that deepened in the aftermath of the George Floyd killing, street outreach workers on the front lines of violence say. That hopelessness is changing the rules of engagement on the streets. A cycle of retaliation has set in, and children and bystanders, once considered off-limits, are increasingly in the crossfire.
“People felt despair and lack of hope prior, and they almost feel nothing now,” says Chris Patterson, who helped launch the Institute for Nonviolence Chicago in the Austin neighborhood in 2016, one of Chicago’s worst years for gun violence in recent memory. With jobs disappearing and the constant threat of a deadly virus, “it’s very uncertain. It’s uncertain for people who have everything together, you know? If you’re a person who can never get their foot forward and has been struggling, it feels like a very terrifying time.”
With seven months of 2020 on the books, Chicago is on pace to soon exceed last year’s homicide total. As of Aug. 2, the Chicago Police Department logged 450 total murders. That’s up more than 50 percent compared to 2019. Shooting incidents were up by a similar margin. We’re not alone: Reported homicides are up 24 percent so far this year in America’s 50 biggest cities, a Wall Street Journal analysis found. But Chicago leads the nation in the total number of homicides among big cities.
Fragmentation of gangs and cliques, escalating interpersonal and gang conflicts fueled by social media, and what CPD believes are more and deadlier guns flowing into shooters’ hands are making violence-prevention work that much tougher this year.
There is no single culprit. Chicago has a long history of gun violence, and a longer history of segregation and disinvestment. Mayor Lori Lightfoot has said her “all hands on deck” approach to addressing gun violence as a public health issue and driving business and resources to the city’s South and West sides would take time to yield results. It’s also unclear whether 2020’s rise in shootings and homicides is a historic blip, and shifting gang rivalries and social media use are hard to measure. But while this year’s statistics are stark, outreach workers say they believe they’re preventing numbers from being worse, and were making meaningful progress before COVID struck.
Northwestern University’s Institute for Policy Research seemed to back that notion up. A preliminary analysis released in March of the work of eight outreach organizations via Communities Partnering 4 Peace, or CP4P, offered promising initial findings: Since the partnership began in 2017, shootings and homicides declined an average of 1 percent per month in CP4P areas, where shootings and homicides were increasing by 2 percent previously. That led to an overall 17.7 percent reduction on average in the number of homicides and shootings per month in the 30 months since the initiative launched.
Many organizations and their workers are stretched even thinner. Focusing on those deemed most at risk of shooting or being shot, intervention groups work to connect people in Chicago’s most violent neighborhoods to case managers, help them reach educational or employment goals, keep an ear to the ground to tamp down or mediate potential conflicts, and help families or victims access therapy or other resources. Now they’ve had to expand their mandate to help distribute food, masks and COVID literature.
‘TENSION IN THE HOME’
Eddie Bocanegra is the gun violence leader at READI Chicago, a Heartland Alliance program that delivers a mix of cognitive behavioral therapy and jobs programs to high-risk men. The virus has added a variety of stresses for READI participants. Eighty percent have unstable housing. “You have family and friends who let you crash, you move somewhere else. Now they’re like, ‘Hey, man, when we agreed to this, you were working. Now you’re trying to do remote cognitive behavioral therapy, you’re using my Wi-Fi, and by the way, you’re eating up my food and you’re an extra body in a 700-square-foot apartment. I need that couch you’re sleeping on because my kids want to watch TV.’ Now there’s a tension in the home, we have more domestic violence, more arguments that could stem, and have led to, physical altercations.”