Boston has seen a surge in violence in recent weeks.
As of Monday, there had been 28 homicides in the city since the start of the year, compared to 21 during the same period last year and 29 in 2018, according to the police department.
Leading through the July 4th holiday weekend, the city saw seven homicides in seven days, including the fatal shooting of a 15-year-old boy.
“Every act of violence certainly causes waves of lasting trauma throughout a community,” Boston Mayor Marty Walsh said during a press conference on July 7. “Every loss of life is heartbreaking for every single victim and for their families. And when you see, or you hear, a 15-year-old boy lose his life, it hits home even harder how senseless these acts of violence and these impacts truly are.”
Following each act of violence, city and police officials have urged members of the community who were impacted by the events to call the Boston Neighborhood Trauma Team, repeatedly giving out the number at press conferences and on social media: 617-431-0125.
Both Walsh and Boston Police Commissioner William Gross stressed the trauma team is a key part of the city’s strategy for addressing and preventing further cycles of violence.
“Violence will never be accepted as normal in Boston,” Walsh said. “We cannot rest until we eliminate it from our city, and we have not wavered on that belief, quite honestly, and we’re going to continue to move forward on it.”
Here’s what you should know about the Neighborhood Trauma Team, which responds to violence in Boston through the lens of public health.
‘We didn’t invent this’
The Boston Neighborhood Trauma Team network, funded and managed through the Boston Public Health Commission, was formed in 2017 as part of an effort by Walsh’s administration to create a larger, strategic framework for addressing violence in the city through intervention, prevention, and response.
There are six individual neighborhood-based teams in the network: Bowdoin Geneva/Greater Four Corners, East Boston, Grove Hall, Jamaica Plain, Mattapan, and Roxbury.
Each team has its own trauma responders — members of the neighborhood community who have received training in psychological first aid from the city and receive a stipend. When an act of violence occurs, the network is notified, typically by police or Boston EMS, and a trauma responder goes to the scene. In some cases, because the trauma responder is based in and involved in the neighborhood, they may be contacted by a member of the community about the incident before the authorities loop them in.
At its foundation, the team network is set up to work in partnership with existing leadership and organizations within each community, Mark Scott, the program director for the Neighborhood Trauma Team network, told Boston.com in a September interview.
The trauma responders only respond to events in the neighborhood they are assigned to and live in. Because it’s their own community, they are the best equipped to respond to the needs and landscape of that neighborhood, he said.
“This work has a long history,” Scott said. “Whenever there’s been violence in the community, people have responded. We didn’t invent this. I personally have been involved in this kind of thing for 30 years.”
At the core of each neighborhood team are three partners: a community health center, a community-based organization, and a liaison from the citywide Boston trauma response team — a group of clinicians that staff the 24/7 support line being advertised by officials. Through that line, anyone who has experienced trauma can connect to support services at a community health organization working within the network.
In total, the Neighborhood Trauma Team network partners with about 19 different organizations or programs, which function as members of the network, including hospitals like Boston Medical Center and Brigham and Women’s and survivor-led organizations in the city such as the Louis D. Brown Peace Institute and Mothers for Justice and Equality. The network also works alongside the police department and the city’s street worker outreach program known as SOAR.
After an act of violence occurs, a trauma responder from the neighborhood team will go to the scene to assess the situation, make initial contact with members of the community, and share that support resources are available. The team will return to the scene the next day as well to continue making connections with impacted members of the community. In the event of a homicide, they ensure the family is connected to survivor-led organizations like the Peace Institute for assistance.
But that’s just the start of the work the team does.
“The importance of having a community-based partner is they know the neighborhood,” Scott said. “They know the coffee shop around the corner, they know the kids, they know the families. They’ve got some trust. They’ve got some feel for the community, and they’re there. So in the days, the weeks following, the years following, they’re going to be there.”
Bashier Kayou, a responder with the Jamaica Plain Neighborhood Trauma Team, told Boston.com in September he always makes calls to his partners in the community to gather information before he heads to a scene. Once there, police officers might direct him to people at the scene who were impacted, but Kayou said he takes a moment to listen and observe what is going on and identify who might need immediate assistance.
Every scene and the needs of the people at it are different.
“You may find yourself supporting a vigil because those happen immediately … the next thing you know, there are youth or people gathering in a particular area where the incident happened,” said Kayou, who, among his many neighborhood involvements, is co-chair of the Jamaica Plain Neighborhood Development Corp. “So you’re really there to be available and supportive of that. Then we know that the funeral will come — how’s that family being supported during that phase as well? If they need that support, then we are at the funeral supporting that family up. Then comes the next part — you’re coming back, and there’s that healing piece that the community is going through. So you’re really supporting that element of it as well.”
With the COVID-19 pandemic, the Neighborhood Trauma Team network has adjusted some of the ways it interacts with residents, using telehealth and connecting with members of the community using technology like Skype and Zoom more frequently. Out of concern for public health, in-person responses were temporarily suspended early in the pandemic shutdown, but have since resumed, according to Efrain Arias, senior program manager for the network.
Since then, the team has found they were actually able to build capacity in the frequency that they were connecting with residents using the technology.
“We’re all fully aware the social ills that impact vulnerable communities, low-income poor folks, people of color, didn’t go away,” Arias said of the shutdown. “These things, if anything, were exacerbated. And what we know is violence is oftentimes a symptom of those social ills that we have, so we weren’t surprised when we saw incidents of violence during the pandemic because those social ills if anything just got worse during it.”
In recent months, the team and its support line has also been getting calls related to the trauma of living through COVID.
“We’ve got a lot of accumulated — and accumulating grief — before us,” Scott said in early June.
The network itself hasn’t been untouched during the pandemic, either, according to Scott.
“We’ve lost people to COVID,” he said. “We’ve had members of our team die from the disease. We’ve stayed together, but we are grieving — we ourselves are grieving.”
‘We recognize that this is an ongoing process’
City officials say there’s no question that the perspective from community residents, activists, and volunteers — with lived experience in Boston’s neighborhoods — is critical as the city works to address violence intervention and prevention. Because of their relationship to the community and the mission to support individuals toward healing after an act of violence, the trauma responders and their teams play an important role in efforts to prevent retaliatory acts within the neighborhood.
“The benefits of having the community involved is lived experience and testimonials,” Gross, the police commissioner, said in an interview in November focused on the partnership between the police department and the Neighborhood Trauma Team. “Because I don’t care how many times I say, ‘Hey, I’m from the neighborhood.’ Some people are like, ‘Yeah, you’re police,’ or, ‘Hey, you work for the city.’ When you actually bring in people that have experienced violence or have lost their loved ones to senseless acts of violence or lost loved ones to mental health issues and stress-related illnesses that — cancer, a heart attack, everything even including suicide — those lived experiences, those testimonies are really what drives home and impacts others.”
Those working in and partnering with the network have “trauma capital,” Scott said, having experienced their own traumas and tragedies.
“To quote one of our partners, [they’re] transforming pain into power — that’s the Peace Institute’s saying,” he said. “They’ve transformed their pain into power, and now they’re leaders.”
For Kayou, his sense of purpose and dedication to working to prevent violence stems from a moment when he was a 21-year-old in Harlem and someone put a gun to his head and pulled the trigger.
“The gun misfired,” the Jamaica Plain resident recalled. “I was able to get out of there with a dislocated shoulder — I’ve seen too much of that in my lifetime. So that told me, ‘Bashir, you have to do something here.’ So my life, my new life, really began at that moment.”
He became involved in youth work, eventually doing specialized intervention programming for Outward Bound and arriving in Boston to focus on violence prevention and leadership development in middle schools in the city.
Since his time working for Outward Bound, Kayou said in Jamaica Plain he’s continued to focus on youth empowerment, affordable housing, and health issues in the community — which includes violence, he stressed.
Health officials agree, listing violence as one of the social determinants of health — the conditions in the environment where people live and work, such as access to safe housing and transportation options, that affect the health, quality-of-life outcomes and risks, and functioning of those in it.
“Oftentimes, the biggest challenge is that the community has had multiple hits over and over again,” Kayou said of addressing the effects of repeated traumas the neighborhood teams bear witness to themselves. “We recognize that this is an ongoing process. It’s not a one-off process where you go in, ‘Oh, there was an incident, you’re good to go.’ That does not work, and we were very clear that that does not work. So from the community side that means that I am invested much longer. There are follow-ups. I may get a call, ‘Bashier, could you come in to the team and do a healing session?’ So we’ll go in, and we’ll do that to give the resources around how do you heal from the violence.”
Trauma team members are involved in attending and supporting events in the community throughout the year — from cultural events to meetings about safety with public officials to rallies organized by young people in the neighborhood.
“When we do have an incident, we are not there just because of the incident,” Kayou said. “We’ve already established those relationships. … Our role is to help the community heal. Our role is not to direct, but to support. … We’re not leading those events. We are working with partners to provide support in the community. And if they want particular information and advice, we provide that to them as well.”
Because they are working in their own community, trauma responders have the neighborhood’s memory of past violence and are aware of when anniversaries of murders are coming up, ready to support families beyond just the initial loss.
It also means that sometimes a trauma responder may be personally impacted by an act of violence in the neighborhood. In those instances, the trauma responder will not be assigned to provide support since they themselves are grieving.
Kayou said it’s a situation he’s been in, when a young person he’d worked with for years was killed, the unintended target of an act of violence.
“You need to step back, and you have team members that will step up and take care of that,” Kayou said. “I think that’s also what makes this work — we can do that because there are so many of us who have that level of exposure, particularly those of us who are youth workers as well, those of us who are deeply engaged in the community on other levels. That’s very hard. Sometimes you know that you’ve lost someone that you’ve done so much to support, that you’ve seen this young person’s life turn around, and to lose it to this senseless violence at that moment is very challenging.”
‘What the community is doing is much deeper’
Scott, who before he joined the Boston Public Health Commission to work with the trauma team network was working within the Dorchester community on violence intervention through the faith community, noted that recovering and healing from trauma and violence is a long-term process and doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Someone who is struggling with trauma from a shooting outside their home may also at the same time be grappling with other environmental factors that are affecting their health as well.
“When a person decides they want, and it may take a year, it may take two years, it may take two days, I want to talk to somebody, I want to talk to a professional about that — that’s part of what this investment is about,” he said. “To be able to pay that professional, who is in the health center and they’re in a dyad with another person who is the family partner. Because it’s not just, ‘I need to talk to somebody,’ but, ‘I’ve got a housing problem, I’ve got other kids, and we have school issues. We’re looking for food.’ All of these things are happening.”
Building trust within the community through providing support is key, Kayou and Scott agreed.
“You have to give the community tools to heal and then the community becomes activists,” Kayou said. “They become those ones who say, ‘Look, we’ve had enough of this.’”
Healing is about figuring out life after the traumatic event as well, the two men said.
“Our mission is to respond, but to respond in a way that moves people — and us — towards healing, towards recovery, and not to react,” Scott said.
Kayou said he feels the work done through the trauma team is effective.
“Are we there yet? No,” he said. “I think interventions like this where the community has more resources to effectively deal with the violence, deal with these incidents — we’re beginning to help when the community begins to look at different ways of healing. From a community side, you’re not just healing, you’re organizing.”
Gross said his hope, by always sharing information about the trauma team at crime-scene press conferences, is to break down any stereotypes or perceptions that certain neighborhoods are desensitized to violence.
“Nobody’s used to acts of violence,” he said.
Anybody can be affected by post-traumatic stress, which can be triggered by hearing or witnessing new acts of violence in the community, Gross said. That’s why having members of the trauma team out in neighborhoods, working to break down the stigma associated with asking for help and providing education about support available, is so important.
“It is working,” the commissioner said. “It is helping to solve crime. It is helping people to deal with what’s going on when that one-and-a-half to two percent commit acts of violence.”
Looking at the violence that occurs in Boston, Kayou said in September he doesn’t think there’s enough attention on the work communities are doing on their own.
“We’re not focused enough on how resilient the community is,” he said. “How resilient our young people are. It doesn’t mean that they have forgotten the trauma of that event. It means that they’re figuring out ways of how can we regroup and move on.”
That work is what needs to be supported, the trauma responder said.
There are so many “unsung” people doing work to support their community at the grassroots level that never get their voice heard but who deserve to be at the table when violence prevention is discussed, Kayou said.
“This is really more than just showing up at the scene because somebody got shot,” Scott said of the trauma team’s role in addressing violence in the city. “What the community is doing is much deeper.”