Sick & Tired

Improving Health For African-Americans Means Reducing Violence

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Monique Reed points to an unassuming residential block in Louisville’s Shawnee neighborhood. There, in March, her then-13-year-old son, Tay, and his friend were shot as they walked to a restaurant.

Her son told her that young men were stationed in the alley waiting for the boys to pass by. She said she believes the shooting was retaliation from an earlier fight between her son’s older brother and another young man.

“Soon as they turned their back, gunshot went off. They started running,” she said, recalling her son’s description of the shooting.

“Diontay kind of limped all the way until he fell and realized that he was shot, and then I think his brothers kind of picked him up and kind of carried him a little further down the corner,”she said.

The bullet went through his back and stomach. Tay spent 10 days in the hospital after having surgery on a collapsed lung.

And although his physical wounds have healed, Reed said the incident continues to take an emotional and financial toll on the family.

“I’ve been stressed out,” she said. “I’ve had to put my life on the back burner. I had to drop out of school. I lost my job. My whole life went completely down because of all that was going on.”

Violent acts have shaped the lives of many people, especially those of African-American men. In the 1985 Heckler Report — the federal government’s first-ever study of the effects of behavioral and societal issues on the health of African-Americans, Hispanics, Asians and Native Americans — homicide was listed as the leading cause of death for black males ages 15 to 44.

And 30 years later, it’s the No.1 cause of death for black men ages 15 to 34.

''Anxiety is all about what bad things are going to happen in the future, and when your environment isn’t safe, it’s natural to feel anxious.'' Monnica Williams

It’s important to understand violence as a public health issue because it not only impacts victims but also their communities, said Dr. Nadine Gracia, director of the Office for Minority Health at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

“It can impact and cause stress in communities. It can cause families to have disruption,” Gracia said. “And the cost of violence really is significant when you think about not only loss of life but loss of productivity as far losing a life so early in adolescence.”

In Jefferson County, 21 percent of residents are African-American, according to the U.S. Census. Louisville Metro Police, which has jurisdiction for most of the county, has investigated 50 criminal homicides so far in 2015, according to an August report by Louisville Metro Police. And 70 percent of this year’s homicide victims are black men.

The U.S. Department of Justice reports that blacks are six times more likely than whites to be the victims of violent crimes, and eight times more likely to be offenders.

The high homicide rate can be attributed to a number of factors, such as social, educational and economic environments, according to the 1985 Heckler Report. But it is also related to psychological factors related to mental processes and behavior.

Monnica Williams, director of the Center for Mental Health Disparities at the University of Louisville, said traumatic experiences, like a neighborhood shooting, often lead to feelings of despair.

“Anxiety is all about what bad things are going to happen in the future, and when your environment isn’t safe, it’s natural to feel anxious,” Williams said.

There are many reasons for a person to commit violent acts. Poverty and lack of employment opportunities are major social determinants that lead to violence, but Williams said offenders are often living with an undiagnosed mental health condition.

“People may respond in a violent or unpredictable way because they’re not getting the kind of help they need,” Williams said. “Also, sometimes young people who grow up in violent environments, they see other people being violent and they think that’s how you’re supposed to solve problems — by being violent to get your way.”

In recent years, Metro government officials have implemented a number of initiatives in an effort to slow the city’s uptick in violent crimes. Anthony Smith, director of safe and healthy neighborhoods for Louisville Metro, said last year the city launched “Zones of Hope” in an attempt to reduce homicides and provide better futures for young men. Through the initiative, community organizers go to Newburg, Russell, Parkland, Shawnee and California to build relationships with residents.

City government is also a part of the White House initiative My Brother’s Keeper, a program created to help boys and young men of color find mentors, develop skills to find a good job or go to college, and eventually enter the middle class.

But others say preventing violence in the city must go further than just providing jobs.

Eddie Woods, director of the Life Hope Center for a Safe Louisville, said he views such initiatives as an “assembly program approach” — people come in, get media attention and then abandon the issue.

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On this residential block in Louisville’s Shawnee neighborhood, Monique Reed's then-13-year-old son, Tay, and his friend were shot.

''You just gotta be ready every day you come out your door. You just wouldn’t know what to expect, and it’s crazy that you have to live that way,'' Reed said.

J. Tyler Franklin

Woods said it takes consistent attention on the issue from stakeholders invested in the neighborhoods being targeted.

“If we can stop or slow down smoking, any number of diseases, through initiatives as people, then start with awareness, and then start with a plan and executing a plan,” Woods said.

Still, the city’s homicide rate has spiked since last year, when 31 people had died at this point in the year, according to police data.

For parents like Monique Reed, violence can be an ever-present concern. In addition to Tay’s shooting, she watched last year as a group of kids attacked her 18-year-old son, Wesley. His skull was fractured. Reed said she thought he’d died when she saw the injuries.

Another son, 17-year-old Damion, is away at a juvenile detention center for probation violation. Her 12-year-old daughter, Latoya, keeps a watchful eye on her older brothers — and everyone else, too.

“You just gotta be ready every day you come out your door. You just wouldn’t know what to expect, and it’s crazy that you have to live that way,” Reed said.

Sick & Tired is a four-part web and radio series examining health disparities among racial minorities in Kentucky. It's part of the Next Louisville: Community Health project, a partnership between WFPL News, the Foundation for a Healthy Kentucky and the Community Foundation of Louisville.

Reed and Tay have been using his shooting as a way to bring awareness to the effects violence has on their community. In the past few months, Reed has organized rallies, job fairs and social events for the youth in Shawnee with the hope that they will make the right decisions, finish their education and prosper.

Reed said she’d like to move her family out of Shawnee, but she feels trapped.

“I have to have all the bills down paid to be able to switch them. I gotta have deposit money for another house to move to get away from here, and being a single parent — I just went through a divorce,” she said.

So for now, she said she has no choice but to stay put.

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