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"“Nowhere to live safe”: Moving to Peace and Safety,"

by Barbara Samuels November/December 2014 issue of Poverty & Race

We all experience stress in our daily lives, whether financial worries or problems at work or at home. Few of us escape some exposure to “adverse childhood experiences.” But many low-income families have to live, day in and day out, with corrosive fear for their children’s basic safety.

A new policy brief, authored by researchers from Princeton University and published by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, offers sobering data on just how prevalent children’s exposure to violence may be (McLanahan). The brief summarizes findings from RWJF’s “Fragile Families Study,” involving 5,000 children born in U.S. cities in 2000, and a longitudinal examination of a range of factors known to be associated with children’s health and development.

Nearly a quarter of the mothers in the study reported witnessing or having been the victim of violence. But this figure masks wide racial and ethnic disparities in neighborhood conditions. More than 40% of black mothers reported exposure to neighborhood violence, almost three times the level reported by white mothers and immigrant Latina mothers.

As though the prevalence of violence is not sobering enough, the researchers found that exposure to neighborhood violence was highest when children were three to five years old. A mounting body of evidence tells us that children’s exposure to chronic adversity and toxic stress during critical periods of early childhood years is harmful to cognitive development and lifelong health. “What happens in early childhood can matter for a lifetime.” (Center on the Developing Child) In very disadvantaged and often violent neighborhoods, all three of the building blocks needed for the healthy development of children are compromised: 1) stable, responsive relationships; 2) safe supportive environments; and 3) appropriate nutrition (National Scientific Council on the Developing Child). In these environments, food deserts are the norm, families live in unstable and often dilapidated housing, and parents and children must navigate past abandoned buildings and street corner drug dealers while walking to and from school. Less obvious perhaps is the toll these conditions take on the ability of parents to provide the stable, caring relationships thought to buffer children in disadvantaged neighborhoods from adversity and to build resiliency. Mental health experts warn that parents who are unable to protect their children from violence experience stress, depression, helplessness and hopelessness that they communicate to their children (Osofsky).

That is what the research shows, but what do low-income families have to say about the stress they experience living in some of the most disinvested neighborhoods in America? A “Family Health and Wellness” survey that the ACLU of Maryland is administering to participants in the Baltimore Housing Mobility Program offers a human voice to match the research findings.

The Baltimore Housing Mobility Program was launched in 2003 as a result of a public housing desegregation lawsuit, Thompson v. HUD, and is expanding to serve up to 4,400 families by 2018. In our role as counsel for the Thompson plaintiff class, we are surveying families that moved from public housing, or nearby Baltimore neighborhoods, at least three years ago, and are now living in low-poverty, racially integrated communities in the city and surrounding region. An open-ended question asks participants to identify their “biggest sources of stress” before moving through the Mobility Program. The responses overwhelmingly point to neighborhood violence. Their words begin to provide a sense of just how toxic the stress that violence causes can be in the lives of families forced to endure it:

“Praying me and my kids don’t get shot going or coming home.”
“Coming in house with people all out front and drugs being sold and police sirens all the time.”
“Rodents + violence + crime.”
“Keeping my kids safe, guns, people getting killed.”
“Being around gun fire, fights and drugs each day.”
“Violence and education for my kids.”
“The crime rate in the neighborhood and keeping my children safe.”
“Neighborhood, children, safety.”
“Nowhere to live safe.”
“Violence in neighborhood, safety, no good food markets, no car, drug dealers.”
“Letting my kids play outside without getting hurt.”
“Was my kids okay, where was my life going?”
“Living in an area that wasn’t good for my son or myself.”
“The neighborhood. Raising my child in those neighborhoods.”
“Living environment. Children not being able to experience positive life.”
“Finding a safe family environment for us.”
“Giving my kids a good life in a safe environment.”

Reflecting on their lives three or more years after moving to a safer neighborhood, families typically say their quality of life has improved. They feel less stress and more at peace. As one mother put it: “I think moving saved my family’s lives. My children are happier, they want more out of their lives, they have less stress.”

Housing Vouchers, Mobility Counseling

For these families, exposure to violence is no longer an everyday event. A housing voucher and mobility counseling offered a way to protect their children from the accumulation of harm.
This is not to say that moving has removed all stress from the lives of these parents and their children. Nor does it mean they no longer face the many challenges of low income, lack of education and past trauma. Some have had to deal with unfriendly neighbors, racism or anti-Section 8 sentiments. But when we asked mobility program families to identify their biggest sources of stress currently, their responses will be familiar to many of us: finances, jobs, children and transportation:

“Making sure my bills are paid.”
“[Gas and electric] bill.”
“I need a car.”
“Can’t afford childcare.”
“Finding permanent employment and going back to school.”
“My 15 year old son.”
“Bills, preparing my 2 children for college this year,”
“Bettering myself so I can buy my home.”

Free of the debilitating stress and fear that so often accompanies living in the shadow of abandoned buildings and violence, parents say they feel more motivated and hopeful. Asked to describe their hopes for the future, they talk about making a positive life for their children: going back to school, getting into a “career” and not just a job, becoming a homeowner and helping their kids reach their potential. In the words of one mother, “I want to live my life to the fullest and watch my children grow and realize that they deserve the best and they can have it.”

Public health experts consider community violence in distressed neighborhoods to be a public health epidemic. The burden of this epidemic has fallen almost exclusively upon African-American families who, as described by Patrick Sharkey, have lived in our nation’s most distressed and segregated urban neighborhoods for multiple generations. There they confront adversity and stressors of a depth and persistence that few others experience, while struggling to make ends meet and to keep their kids physically safe and engaged in school, often against improbable odds.

Public Policy Response

Why then, has relatively little attention been given to the impact on children of living in environments of chronic violence? And why has our public policy response been so focused on costly remediation, with so little attention paid to helping parents take their children out of damaging environments? The fact that families are poor need not mean that it is natural or inevitable that their children must grow up in poor neighborhoods. After all, the “double jeopardy” of growing up poor in a high-poverty neighborhood very rarely falls on poor white children and their families.

The emerging evidence from both the biological and social sciences of the harmful toll that prolonged exposure to extreme poverty and chronic violence takes on families, and especially young children, should be a game changer. Housing mobility programs don’t attempt to offer a panacea to solve all problems for all people, but they could be a critical option for many families living in conditions that call for urgency. If we can offer families a real chance to get their children out of harm’s way, by moving to areas with better schools and health outcomes, how can we fail to act?

Barbara Samuels is director of the Fair Housing Project at the ACLU of Maryland. An earlier version of this article appeared in the Rooflines blog, www.

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