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Neighborhood Violence and Healthy Housing - Making the "Usual" Unusual

The connection between unhealthy housing and neighborhood violence has been a long standing interest of mine. Recently, it became personal.

Two weeks ago, the District of Columbia had an "unusually" violent week. There were nine homicides in the city within eight days and at least one non-fatal shooting. Two of these shootings took place within blocks of my apartment.

On a Saturday night, I awoke to the sounds of gunshots in the alley next to my home. Although no one was killed in this incident, three men were shot by two gunmen while being chased down the alley. I had heard gunshots before, but the sound of multiple shooters is easily perceived as an automatic weapon and is terrifying. The following Monday, while walking home from the metro, I walked past yet another crime scene aftermath of a homicide of a 22 year-old man.

While these incidents were clearly targeted violence, they have caused me to seriously consider the linkage between our efforts to improve health within the walls of a home, and the elements of one's health and quality of life that are clearly influenced by factors outside of the home. In my efforts to improve housing quality for low-income families, I am constantly saddened by the fact that neighborhood violence and fear persist despite large-scale improvements to multi-family housing units.

The research is clear: exposure to neighborhood violence impacts the health of all members of a community. Individuals who perceive their neighborhood as dangerous and who witness violence in their community have worse psychological health, including severe anxiety and depression. Chronic stress related to neighborhood violence impacts not only its current residents, but also future generations through adverse birth outcomes, including preterm birth and low birth weight. Parents are less likely to let their children play outdoors if they are concerned about safety.

Children exposed to violence have poorer educational outcomes, impacting their opportunities for employment and lifetime earnings. At the neighborhood level, concerns about violence can discourage business investment, reducing residents’ access to essential services and employment opportunities. The same communities that are disproportionately impacted by violence are the same ones that are disproportionately burdened by lead poisoning and other hazards in the home. Unhealthy housing mirrors violence in its substantial impacts on families and the broader community.

There is a demonstrated association between elevated blood lead levels in children and reduction in IQ resulting in decreased likelihood of high school and college graduation and lower lifetime earning potential. It is also estimated that 10% of juvenile delinquency can be attributed to lead poisoning. These problems are cyclical and interconnected, and have devastating impacts on families and neighborhoods across multiple generations.

For many families and communities we work with, these events of violence are not so "unusual." They are a part of daily life in neighborhoods across the country. As we work to eliminate lead poisoning and other hazards in the home environment, I look forward to a time when improvements in housing quality will go hand in hand with better neighborhoods and less violence. While I recognize that those of us working in the healthy homes movement are not necessarily equipped tackle the problems of neighborhood violence, I do think we have a responsibility to understand how violence impacts health and quality of life. We must proactively forge partnerships to improve both housing and communities in a more coordinated way.

Since the shootings in my neighborhood, a number of people have asked if I plan to stay in my current apartment. Despite these events, I have not changed my perception of or lost the love I have for my neighborhood. It’s a community where neighbors know and take care of each other. It’s a place where people say “hello” as they pass each other on the street.  It’s a neighborhood where kids gather to ride bicycles and play football games on the sidewalks and in each other’s yards. Considering the times we live in today, it is indeed a rare find in Washington D.C. Ultimately, I look forward to the day when we figure out how to make these “usual” events of violence “unusual”…or even better yet, non-existent.

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