Health & Science

How Houston Health Workers Plan To Treat Violence Before It Becomes Violence

They’ve identified three environmental factors that contribute to the problem.

The mother of Jazmine Barnes, LaPorsha Washington, speaks at the 7-year-old’s funeral in January of 2019.

Gun violence in Houston has gained national attention in recent months, with the deaths of 7-year-old Jazmine Barnes, killed in her mother’s car near a Walmart, and 18-year-old De’Lindsey Mack, gunned down in broad daylight a block away from his high school.

Authorities believe both deaths were ultimately the result of gang violence, triggering calls from city and state leaders for a crackdown on gang activity in the Houston area.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott singled out Houston and called for an expansion of the Texas Anti-Gang Task Force both after the death of Jazmine Barnes and at his 2019 State of the State address. Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo also pledged to put an emphasis on gang violence this year, noting that the majority of violence in Houston is gang-related. In 2017, the city saw more than 1,000 cases of gang-related crime involving youth.

However, a growing cohort of public health workers believe the problem can be addressed much earlier, before kids join gangs and before community problems become violence problems. Their perspective centers violence as a symptom of an epidemic within a community — an epidemic informed by a community’s surroundings.

Health workers in the City of Houston’s Bureau of Youth and Adolescent Health began studying how to prevent youth violence through health in 2011, with funding from a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention grant. They expect to release their plan in March.

They identified three environments they think affect youth violence, detailed in a draft of Houston’s youth violence prevention strategic plan provided to News 88.7:

  1. The physical/built environment: This involves the physical deterioration of a community: homes and buildings in disrepair; poorly maintained and unsafe public spaces, such as poorly lit public parks; and the lack of healthy infrastructure, such as a high volume of stores selling alcohol or a lack of stores selling fresh produce.
  2. The economic and educational environment: Experts view this as inter-generational poverty and long-term unemployment, as well as divestment from communities. One health worker describes this as a decrease in locally-owned businesses and a lack of funding for education and job-training opportunities.
  3. The social-cultural environment: This refers to “the elevation of destructive, dislocation social norms” and “a low sense of political and social efficacy” among a community, where violence and gang membership, among other social factors, are normalized.  

Each environment informs and interacts with the others in a way health workers like Melissa Bing with the Bureau of Youth and Adolescent Health describe as a type of feedback loop. The end result is sustained and generations-long trauma in a community.

“How resilient would you feel about making changes or doing positive things if you are in a community like this?” Bing asked, looking out at several dilapidated homes in northeast Houston.

“It would obviously be a lot harder for you to make positive decisions, especially when you pair it with the social-cultural environment where things like using violence is encouraged.”

Bing is the primary author of the city’s new youth violence prevention plan, and her work runs alongside another highly-publicized city effort — Mayor Sylvester Turner’s Commission Against Gun Violence.

Marcell McClinton, a high school senior from Spring Branch on the commission, said while the group has mostly focused on school safety, he knows most youth violence in Houston involves gangs. He said it’s an issue the group has kept in mind.

“They think their only outlet is to join a gang to get food or to get money or to feel like they have a safe community behind them,” McClinton said, calling for the city to devote more resources to youth.

The idea of tackling youth violence much farther upstream is still gaining momentum, and only in the past few years have cities like Houston started forming teams focused on preventing it.

Currently, Mayor Turner has tasked his government affairs office in Austin to lobby state lawmakers with recommendations from the commission, asking for more funding for counselors and other support in schools. That signals the prevention movement is gaining momentum. However, advocates say those efforts are still further down the line and address the symptoms of a problem that begins much sooner, in the fabric of a community.

Share