In any given year, Philadelphia tallies between 300 and 400 homicides. And without fail, about 60 percent of those victims are black men younger than 40.
"Think of this as a public health problem," said John Rich, a Drexel University professor and co-director of the school's Center for Nonviolence and Social Justice. "Urban violence is a huge problem and the main thing that jumps out of this is it's preventable."
In January, the nonprofit Violence Policy Center ranked Pennsylvania third in the nation for its black homicide rate, with 28.3 deaths per 100,000 people. That's about six times the national homicide rate.
One media outlet recently topped an article with the headline "Philadelphia: The Epicenter of Black-On-Black Violence."
"Black males killing black males is nothing new," said Everett Gillison, deputy mayor for public safety. "What is new is the extent the carnage has gone on."
The carnage, obviously, has an immediate effect. But it also has long-term ones. Studies have shown that people who grow up with a lot of stressors are more likely to develop long-term health problems when they're older, Rich said. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, black males have the shortest life expectancy.
Rich and his colleagues have done research in urban communities that shows the stressors there are comparable to war zones.
"We know that people exposed to high levels of violence suffer physical and mental consequences like [post-traumatic stress disorder]," he said. "It's in many cases higher than those who come back from war."
PTSD's symptoms include hypervigilance/hyperarousal, re-experiencing and avoidance or numbness. Treating that PTSD early is a way to prevent future violence, Rich said. A program called Healing Hurt People trying to do just that is currently under way at St. Christopher's Hospital for Children. It's under the direction of Dr. Theodore Corbin, a Drexel emergency medicine physician who developed the intervention in 2007.
"Trauma can make people cut off their ability to see the future," Rich said. "One way to open up is to help them heal while also providing them with opportunity."
Those opportunities can be as simple as providing young people places to go and things to do on nights and weekends.
"It's simple," Rich said. "It's not without costs, but when we compare the costs, it seems to make sense."
Immigrants also forced to deal with city’s murder epidemic
Jin Zheng’s little girls want to know where their father is.
They ask, she said, but she doesn’t know what to tell them. The reality is too difficult to contemplate.
Zheng’s husband, Xiang Huang, was gunned down in the family’s Chinese-takeout store in Tacony in January. He was 27 and a father of three. The case remains unsolved.
“Our dream was simple,” Zheng, 25, said in Chinese through a translator. “We just wanted to live a better life.”
Like so many others, Zheng and her husband — Chinese immigrants who met in New York — moved to Philadelphia because it was a more affordable city where they thought they could build a business, buy a house, live the dream. And like too many others, they found that dream shattered.
Mei Ren, president of the Greater Philadelphia Fujian Association, said many Chinese immigrants she’s spoken to since Huang’s death are ready to call it quits. “Because this happens a lot, they want to move out of Philadelphia.”
“You hear too many stories where the restaurant owner is murdered,” said Yingzhang Lin, president of the Greater Philadelphia Chinese Restaurant Association.
Of course, it’s not just restaurant owners. In the last four months alone, violence has taken the lives of a store clerk who regularly sent money home to her mother in Mexico and a New York transplant who was about to start a new job. Jerry Ratcliffe, a Temple University professor of criminal justice, said it was reasonable to believe that the violent incidents could discourage others from moving to the city or opening a business here.
“We shouldn’t underestimate the impact that homicide has on the quality of life in the city,” he said, noting that one study put the cost of an individual homicide at $8 million.
But Everett Gillison, deputy mayor for public safety, noted that homicide is generally not random, meaning most of the general public has no reason to fear.
“Homicide, you’ll find, is a pretty personal matter,” he said. “It happens between people who are directly engaged in one fashion or another with a person they know.”