Addressing the costs of chronic violence in DC


Benning Terrace. Photo credit: Priya Saxena

The Urban Institute’s new analysis on crime in Washington, DC paints a picture of a city of contrasts— vibrant neighborhoods that are enjoying a remarkable reduction in crime and a smaller set of struggling neighborhoods where violent crime remains stubbornly high and homicide rates appear to be spiking.

Over the past week, there has been a spate of homicides that have affected communities across the city. One of those places is Benning Terrace, a public housing community east of the Anacostia River, where chronic violence has wreaked a terrible toll. The community is reeling from the terrible tragedy of a 7-year-old boy who found a gun and accidentally shot his 3-year-old sister, Dalis Cox, as well as at least two other homicides that have affected residents this summer. 

Just two months ago, we wrote about the costs of chronic violence in Baltimore’s Gilmor Homes, the public housing development that was home to Freddie Gray, whose death sparked protests that engulfed the community. Like the events in Gilmor Homes, the tragedies that have stunned Benning Terrace make it painfully clear that living with chronic violence and social isolation threaten children’s life chances, and silences their collective voice.

As we wrote in our last post:

Living with chronic violence and social isolation has less visible, but very real psychic costs for children and adults. It means living in a place where everyone has been traumatized by loss and violation. It means you spend every day paranoid. It means you distrust your neighbors and the very people in place to support and protect your safety. It means having to normalize neighborhood disorder in order to cope with decades of neglect.

Like a tape playing on repeat, this burden sends a message to young people especially that their lives, their voices don’t matter.

But unlike Gilmor Homes, Benning Terrace residents have access to an unusual level of help and support. Benning Terrace is the DC site for Urban’s Housing Opportunities and Services Together (HOST) Demonstration, which is intended to address some of these deep, community-level challenges. HOST is an evidence-based platform to help bring needed services to socially isolated families living in public housing, using a two-generation “whole family” approach to serve children and their parents.

The core of HOST is onsite intensive case management or coaching—staff trained in state-of-the-art techniques like motivational interviewing and trauma-informed care. With lower caseloads, these staff have the time to make sure both parents and youth get the services and encouragement they need to improve their life chances.

In Benning, HOST is known as “BT Reach,” and services are delivered by the East River Family Strengthening Collaborative and clinical mental health provider Crawford Consulting. The HOST/BT Reach team has been working with families for almost three years, linking residents with employment and training services, providing summer programming for youth, and offering onsite mental health services.

The tragic events of the past week have demonstrated the true value of having a place-based program like HOST. Because BT Reach staff are onsite, they have developed relationships with residents and DC Housing Authority (DCHA) staff. These relationships meant they were able to respond quickly and effectively to the crisis. They could coordinate with the housing authority and community leaders to get families the help they needed, including emergency mental health support. And they were available to provide grief counseling to any resident who wanted it.  

But HOST is a demonstration and the funds for the work are limited. And Benning is not the only one of DC’s struggling communities that is suffering from this summer’s spike in violence. DC’s city agencies need to build on the lessons from HOST and expand access to this model of support and service.

Five thousand low-income children live in DC public housing. A city that is experiencing such a renaissance can afford to invest in helping its most vulnerable residents succeed. The DCHA cannot—and should not—have to shoulder the burden of providing these services alone. This investment effort cannot come too soon for DCHA’s children.