The high-pitched sound of police sirens, the bangs of gunfire, or the yellow police tape separating onlookers from crime scenes, are a part of everyday life for residents of D.C.’s Wards 7 and 8.
Aaron Dunmore, 69, is an avid cyclist who lives in Ward 7. He recalls riding past crime scene tape more times than he can count during the past month.
“It’s a monster over in Northeast,” Dunmore said. “It’s a mess. It’s always something.”
Dunmore no longer goes out after dark anymore.
“I try to be as close as possible to home by dark. So much stuff is going on nowadays. I can’t risk being out. I’m not trying to be a victim, he said, adding that when he must go out after nightfall, “I just watch my back. I make it my business to look over my shoulder. You have to play defense.”
According to police data, nearly half, 46 percent, of the 1,674 violent crimes committed in the city over the past six months occurred in Wards 7 and 8. The categories of violent crimes include homicide, sexual abuse, assault with a dangerous weapon, and robbery.
Fear of Violence Can Lead to Paralysis
Sandra Crewe, dean of Howard University’s School of Social Work, said older residents remain especially vulnerable to the effects of violent crime in the community.
Crewe said one of the effects of living in a violent neighborhood for older residents is fear of leaving their homes.
“If I fear there is danger on the street, then I’m tethered to where I live. Then they miss out on interactions, and for older people, social isolation is a killer.” Isolation, she said, can be as harmful as smoking 15 cigarettes per day.
After her daughter and husband were robbed in Southeast neighborhoods on separate occasions, 68-year-old Ingrid Scott said she became hesitant to leave her house.
“My husband came home bloodied one day,” Scott said. “We opened the door, and we saw his face was bleeding and bruised.”
After that incident, she started carrying a knife and made a more concerted effort to be aware of her surroundings whenever she went out.
“You know when to look back, when to look over your shoulder, when not to look back. You have to be on your p’s and q’s at all times,” she said.
However, over time, she realized, “I can’t live like this. And you just pray a lot and keep going,” Scott said.
Crewe said heightened fears such as those experienced by Scott often impact the lives of others who have similarly faced violence and may develop into generalized anxiety, which can trigger depression.
These mental issues can worsen pre-existing conditions, including diabetes and high blood pressure – conditions prevalent in the Black community.
Crewe added that many older, Black residents are dealing with current stressors and the historical trauma of racial injustice.
“It is the current violence that sometimes connects itself to the past and changes their quality of life,” Crewe said. “They are essentially re-traumatized by the violence in their community.”
Violence, Trauma and Youth
On the other end of the spectrum, children are also vulnerable to the effects of violence around them.
Meghan McCamis, senior manager of mental health and trauma-informed practice for Horton’s Kids, said trauma as a result of violence manifests differently based on a child’s developmental stage.
She said that trauma symptoms could cause sleeping or eating problems for children five or younger, while a 9-year-old may suffer from nightmares or begin to exhibit aggressive tendencies. For teenagers, trauma may lead to antisocial behavior, truancy, or violence.
At Horton’s Kids, a non-profit organization that offers academic support and other wrap-around services at its two community resource centers in Wellington Park and Stanton Oaks, trauma-informed care is embedded in every service the organization provides.
“I don’t know statistics, but I would bet everyone we work with has known or lost someone to violence,” McCamis said. “And that takes a huge toll on you.”
Shandell Richards, the group’s senior director of strategic initiatives and engagement, calls the organization a “one-stop-shop for the community.” Horton’s Kids serves about 150 families and 500 children a year.
“The most important thing a child wants to feel when they come home is safety,” Richards said. “Imagine not being able to come home and feel safe. That’s what Horton’s Kids provides. We’re home.”
“In order for you to move on in life and think past your circumstances, you have to learn how to dream. If I’m able to explore and be exposed to something different, then I can learn there is something more.”
Richards said she believes the communities Horton’s Kids serves have been “looked at as less than and forgotten about. We’re not here to do that. We are here to help you get better — whatever better looks like for you.”
“I understand that this is a community that doesn’t dream. But you can only start dreaming when you feel comfortable and safe,” she said.
Dreaming is a catalyst for change, Richards said.
Maya Smith, a Report for America Corps member, covers health disparities in D.C.’s Wards 7 and 8.