One reason for the homicide crisis: Young people in pain
In Cleveland, experts and the OGs agree hopelessness and anger are contributing to the carnage
Walter Patton won’t go to any more funerals.
“I stopped going to funerals at No. 26,” said Patton, who lives in one of Cleveland’s poorest and most violent neighborhoods. “If I had kept going, the number would be up to 43.”
Patton, 34, lives in the Outhwaite Homes in the Central neighborhood. The residents watch each other’s backs, which Patton said is a necessity of life here. When something terrible happens, as it invariably does, they convene to see what can be done.
But the killings keep occurring. The homicide rate in Central is 12 times the national average.
Patton lost a friend to gunfire for the first time in 2004, when he was 16. Ten months later, his best friend, Lennard Pinson, was shot to death at the neighborhood rec center, a homicide hotspot for decades because it draws groups of young men and women from all the complexes.
I met with Patton in Cleveland, trying to understand why some people in high-poverty areas are quick to squeeze the trigger when a dispute arises. Patton said he believes it’s because many people here are poor and have lost hope. Using a gun helps them get the clout they want — the same type of clout he used to seek as a teenager that led to a stint in prison.
Patton — now a stocky man with a black beard on his round face — said he’s had enough of the pain that comes from burying friends.
“It was depressing, man,” he said, shaking his head, “just seeing your friends in caskets. You automatically think, ‘My time is running out’ when you see somebody you was just standing next to yesterday in a casket. I started seeing myself in that position.”
Attending funerals made those visions seem all too real.
“I said, ‘Nah, I don’t want to be there.’ It’s kind of like speaking it into existence.”
Patton’s story is heartbreaking but not unusual in the poorer parts of the city. People here say things are getting worse, not better, especially since the coronavirus pandemic brought shutdowns and more job losses than even this high unemployment area is used to.
Like many cities across the country, Cleveland is in the midst of its highest two-year homicide rate in three decades. The Central neighborhood, with 14 killings last year among fewer than 12,000 residents, is unfortunately at the head of the pack.
This summer, after one of my childhood friends, Eric Smith, was shot and killed on Cleveland’s east side, I began looking into the carnage racking the city. One thing that jumped out was the relatively young ages of many of the victims. As of the first week of December, 137 of the 217 homicide victims in Cuyahoga County were between 15 and 34, according to the medical examiner’s office. Another thing that people repeatedly told me was that young people were in pain and that pain led to unpredictable violence.
Every day, the stories in Greater Cleveland rip at your heart: a 17-year-old shot and killed at a rec center in Central in October. A 22-year-old woman kidnapped, tortured and killed in East Cleveland in November. A 13-year-old boy fatally killed in a drive-by shooting in the inner-ring suburb of Euclid this month.
About nine out of every 10 homicides in the area are occurring in low-income, predominantly Black neighborhoods. Experts say years of neglect, inequality and disinvestment have become more than some people can handle, leaving them with significant emotional and psychological health issues. In Central, more than 8 in 10 children live in poverty, according to the Center for Community Solutions, a Cleveland think tank.
“The list of reasons why this is happening is ridiculous,” said Fred Ward, founder of the Khnemu Foundation Lighthouse, a community center that’s helping Patton and other men and women turn their lives around. “One is racism. Being in America and going over all the inequitable processes that’s been implicitly put in place for us. Then you got the collateral damages of it all. You’ve got generations of people subjected to this.”
All is not lost, though. Around the city, people have started nonprofit organizations designed to get young people to put down their guns or repair their lives after a shooting.
In interviews with more than two dozen experts, activists and people on the streets, everyone said young people in Cleveland’s impoverished communities are hurting from so many things — poor living conditions, unemployment or underemployment, failing schools, broken families — that they often feel powerless. Guns give them the ability to take back some power.
Indeed, research shows that Americans who live in violent neighborhoods suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder just like soldiers returning home from combat. One study found that 42% of people at an outpatient clinic in one urban neighborhood had symptoms of PTSD as a result of all the pathology they’d experienced or witnessed.
While there has been ample criticism of the mental health resources available for veterans, most inner-city residents like Patton have not even been screened for their mental and behavioral health statuses, much less treated. And, unlike a soldier who survives war and gets to go home, the poor are often unable to move up the social ladder and out of their impoverished communities.
“The presence of that PTSD can lead to lots of places that are unhealthy,” said John Rich, a professor at Drexel University and director of the Philadelphia-based trauma therapy program Healing Hurt People. “It could lead you to never coming out of the house. It could lead you to smoking tons of weed all day, every day. It could lead you to drinking alcohol. It could lead you to dropping out of school. But it might also lead to you getting a weapon.”
And if you have that weapon and end up in a confrontation, you might not think twice about using it.
“You hear these stories about a young person gets on the bus, steps on somebody else’s foot, suddenly somebody gets shot, right?” said Rich, who a decade ago wrote a book called Wrong Place, Wrong Time: Trauma and Violence in the Lives of Young Black Men. “And we’re like, ‘That’s senseless, that’s senseless violence.’ It might be. But it also may be that the person whose foot got stepped on perceived that as a life-threatening assault, as odd as that might seem to many of us who haven’t experienced PTSD. In the same way that a veteran drops to the ground when he hears somebody slam a car door.”
Rich and colleagues interviewed Black men in inner-city environs and found that most of them believed society didn’t treat them properly and were willing to gain that respect by any means necessary.
“Many of the young people felt like the only thing that they could lose was that sense of respect tied to being somebody,” Rich said. “Their humanity was very closely tied to respect. And, therefore, to ask them to just walk away from their humanity, if you put it that way, you can understand why it gets to that level.”
Gregory Terrell isn’t a professor at a well-known university, but he knows the issues well. He founded an anti-violence group, aptly named Stop the Pain, to forestall homicides and shootings before they occur.
Terrell was in the Buckeye-Woodhill neighborhood of Cleveland one day this fall. A fatal shooting had occurred and, by the time Terrell arrived, the corpse was being prepared for transport to the morgue. “It had not even been five minutes [since the shooting] and there were kids there on bikes, and they were eating candy,” said Terrell.
He knew something was wrong with the children, who didn’t seem to show any emotion as they watched the body being wrapped up and carted off. Then he began thinking about how it wasn’t right for kids to live in these conditions with no help for their mental health.
“These kids were out there eating candy, watching the police and the coroner doing what they were doing to this man who had just been gunned down,” Terrell said. “And it didn’t bother any of them.”
Terrell imagined how that same scene would have played out in one of Cleveland’s predominantly white neighborhoods. He said he would have seen a phalanx of therapists called out to aid the children.
“But these Black kids — it didn’t bother them,” he said. “They’re immune to it.”
A number of people said many young folks use social media and music to help them deal with their trauma, although they don’t know if this media use makes things better or worse.
Black youth consume more media, and that includes social media and music, than any other racial or ethnic group, according to a 2019 study. Social media gives young people more options than ever to share their innermost thoughts, their talent or just to be heard.
Major rappers, as well as wannabes, often post videos showing themselves armed and full of bravado. “Nowadays, you can just click on YouTube and it’s a thousand videos of people from Chicago just shooting each other,” Patton said. “And they’re young. They’re babies.”
“Ghost” is 27 and lives in Cleveland after his release from a Florida prison in July for drug violations. The violence, he said, is “coming from social media, the internet and what they see on TV, and the music.”
“They want something out of life and they don’t know how to go about it,” said Ghost. “They weren’t shown the same opportunity as people that came up in better neighborhoods or, just in general, white people, you feel me.”
Others said that social media exacerbates instances of disrespect or embarrassment because they’re easy for peers to see and comment on.
“There’s this idea about being a sucker, and how you can’t let anybody do anything to you without retaliating, because then everybody will think they can do it to you. And so it’s partly a protective,” Rich said. “You’re trying to show the world you’re strong.”
Patton was born on Sept. 20, 1987. His mom Tracy raised him and his brother, Deaunte, who was six years older, without much help from their dad. Knowing the danger of the area, she kept her youngest close to her. “He would never spend the night over his friends’ house,” she said.
Patton had seen uncles go to jail and other men in his family sell drugs. He was a good athlete and played point guard for his middle school basketball team. He possessed natural leadership skills and a silky smooth jump shot, his coach, Walter Stokes, told me. But once Patton got to high school, he traded basketball for the street life after seeing older boys who had cars, girls and wads of cash. “I didn’t have any male figures in my life besides the drug dealers and the gangsters that were outside fighting for the neighborhood,” he said.
Patton always liked to write poetry but noted that “there was no poets in the ’hood. It was either you were rapping or you were selling drugs or you was carrying a pistol.”
Coach Stokes agreed.
“There’s no program to talk about the poetry. Once you got out of school, that’s it. There’s nothing else but sports for you.”
At 18, Patton became a father, which cemented his direction.
“I had to prove I could get money,” he said.
By 2008, he had been convicted of drug trafficking and carrying a concealed weapon. He was on the run for three years before getting nabbed and sentenced to 18 months in prison, where he said he started “tapping into poetry” and reading poems to the inmates. Several asked him to write something for their girlfriends for Valentine’s Day. Others told him his poetry readings helped them get to sleep at night.
“When I came home I stuck to poetry,” said Patton, who got out in 2013. “This is my calling.”
For four years after Patton came home, he was still going to funerals at places like Gaines Funeral Home on the east side. But by 2017, he said, it became too much to bear.
At Gaines Funeral Home, undertaker Carl Kirby-Gaines Jr., 29, has no doubt that the services Patton attended were traumatic. He said he could relate to the pain of young mourners like Patton because they’re in the same age range.
“When I watch the crowd of people come, they’re hurt,” said Gaines. “I see them stand at the casket. I can hear when they mumble to themselves and when they leave, they don’t have a sense of comfort. They come angry and they leave angry.”
Unlike Patton, a lot of youths continue to go to funerals of their friends. Gaines said he’s starting to see the same young mourners come to multiple funerals.
“They would look at me and I would say, ‘May I help you?’ ” Gaines said. “They would say, ‘You were the director when my friend died a couple years ago.’
“I was watching a slideshow at a funeral and there were pictures of someone we had [as a mourner] months before. And the young man’s mother said, ‘Yeah, you buried his best friend a couple months ago.’
“It’s to a point where we will be at the door greeting people and they don’t even ask which way to go,” said Gaines. “They’ll say, ‘We come here all the time. I know he’s in the main chapel. It’s to the right.’ ”
Rich of Healing Hurt People said young people shouldn’t have to worry about burying their contemporaries.
“The fact that kids know more about the inside of a funeral home is not on them,” he said. “It’s on us. We failed these children. No reasonable person would choose to lose all their friends.”
Rich said his team interviewed one boy who said, “Nobody that I knew in the sandbox is alive anymore.”
Some people are trying to change conditions and culture one neighborhood at a time.
In Glenville, the same neighborhood where my childhood friend Eric was shot over the summer, there are two former neighborhood rivals — Gene Barrow and Jerome “Scrap” Hall. Both men have done years in prison and are now in their 40s. As teens, they were part of warring groups of young men. On the streets, their turf prevented them from befriending one another. “It’s like lions and hyenas,” Hall said. “We never liked them and they never liked us. But why? Because our ’hoods don’t get along.”
In prison, though, being from different sides of the same neighborhood allowed them to understand they had a lot in common.
When Hall was transferred to Mansfield Correctional Institution, halfway between Cleveland and Columbus, he found Barrow there. For his part, Barrow noticed Hall wasn’t the same slim dude he remembered from the streets. Hall had bulked up at another prison, and the two former rivals began lifting weights together.
“We had our issues in the streets, but when we were behind the walls, we were the best of friends,” Barrow said when I caught up with the two of them in November.
In total, Hall served more than 22 years in prison. His convictions ranged from drug trafficking to aggravated assault to attempted robbery.
In 2017, he was finally released and vowed to change his life, which had led him to be shot on three different occasions. He had a 12-year-old son and was thankful to be home before the boy got swallowed up by the same streets that had devoured him. A born-again Christian, he noticed that the turf wars that took him down were still raging between his area of Glenville around Lakeview Road and Barrow’s area around St. Clair, the streets that rappers Bone Thugs-N-Harmony rhapsodized about so well in the 1990s.
“I come home and see those little young dudes still at it and it’s even worse,” Hall, powerfully built and about 5-feet-9, said. “Just shooting and fighting, and now there’s been a murder, so I reached out to Gene and said, ‘We’ve got to do something. This ain’t going to stop.’ ”
Barrow was ready to listen.
“He’s from over here, and I’m from Lakeview,” Hall, 47, said. “It’s been beef forever. But I did 10 years with him. He was always all right.
“So we set the pace for it,” Hall said. “We’re the old ones. We’ve got to change our lives, so if they can see us getting along, then maybe they can get along. And if they can’t get along, they can just leave it alone.”
Hall came up with the name for their initiative: OG Call No Smoke. “Original gangsters” asking the youth of today not to “smoke,” or shoot, each other.
A logo was created. T-shirts and other apparel ordered. A community march was held in June. “We got a lot of buzz behind it [on social media] and people started seeing the results in neighborhoods,” Hall told me while sharing some photos of those achievements.
Getting the young men responsible for the warring together has been more difficult. Barrow and Hall say they have the ears of the right leaders on the streets, but understand it took decades for things to get to this point and the problems aren’t going to be fixed in a few months.
The men said they know that marches and meetings aren’t enough. They hope that training for jobs will move people in the right direction.
Barrow, 48, is nearly finished renovating a storefront property that will house an ice-cream parlor, barbershop and barber school. He’s calling it Mittie Pearl’s in honor of his late grandmother, who was proud of him for going straight after his prison stint.
“I got my GED in prison, and every accomplishment I’d get, I’d mail it for her,” Barrow said. “I’d say, ‘Granny, this is for you.’ When I got out in 2011, I started working at a homeless shelter downtown. Man, I was working for $20 a shift, catching the bus. I wasn’t going to let nothing take me back.”
He plans to provide a stress-free, after-school environment with free ice cream and tutoring and a place to chill and watch TV or play video games. After 6 p.m., when the youths leave, he said, he will open it up to adults for “ice-cream dates.”
“Like I tell everybody, I ain’t never seen nobody eating ice cream with a frown or a mean mug on their face,” Barrow said.
Hall said he owns GTG (Glory to God) Trucking and plans to help some young people get their commercial driver’s license.
“You just can’t tell them to put the pistols down, put the dope down, and they ain’t got nothing to fall back on,” Hall told me. “So we give them something to fall back on.”
It’s Edward M. Barksdale Jr.’s job to patch up Cleveland-area kids when they are shot or assaulted. Barksdale, chief of pediatric surgery at University Hospitals, has always taken pride in the work he and his colleagues have done.
But about four years ago, he realized they needed to do more.
“I saw a young boy, 14, who was shot,” Barksdale recalled. “We took care of him and sent him back into the streets, and we saw him a year later in the morgue.”
As a result of the boy’s homicide, Barksdale and the team co-founded a violence intervention program to address a victim’s physical and mental needs after the person was released from the safe confines of the hospital.
With nearly $2 million in federal grants, University Hospitals’ Rainbow Babies and Children’s Hospital created the Antifragility Initiative in June 2019. So far, it has provided resources to 130 victims and their families to try to make lasting changes so they can live healthy lives free of harm.
Barksdale said many of the victims had been dealing with trauma their whole lives, long before they suffered the injury that landed them in his care.
“We looked at all the people that came into Rainbow shot or severely assaulted,” he said. “That was 452 children, ages 6 to 15, over a two-year period of time. And we found some interesting things. The kids who had been shot or beat up were significantly … more likely to have been abused as children. They were more likely to have required food stamps or have food insecurity, housing insecurity. We saw that they had, by the age of 5, a greater likelihood of household dysfunction, and that seemed to set the stage going forward.”
Families participate in the program for 12 months.
“We provide housing. We provide food,” Barksdale said. “Antifragility is making it stronger and more beautiful than it was before it was broken, and it allows the child or the individual or the family to wear boldly their trauma and move beyond it.”
“Antifragility is, it’s like the Hemingway quote, ‘The world breaks everyone, but afterwards many are stronger in the broken places,’ ” he said. He then held up some Japanese pottery known as kintsugi. The pottery has cracks that are filled with gold epoxy, which makes it more beautiful after it’s been broken and fixed than it was before.
Barksdale smiles and says, “That’s antifragility for me, that’s what I want to do in Cleveland to children.”
Since leaving prison, Patton has amassed an impressive resume.
Through the Khnemu Foundation, he has a job with the city of Cleveland as a lead resources officer. But his most passionate endeavor is a program he’s created in the projects called Ghetto Therapy. It’s a series of community conversations between residents of the Central neighborhood and guest speakers who have a particular story or expertise. His first speaker was Samaria Rice, mother of Tamir Rice, the 12-year-old boy with a toy gun who was killed by a Cleveland police officer in 2014.
“I started it in 2018, man, because of just living in Outhwaite and seeing the community struggles,” he said. “Just seeing the shoot-outs, the homicides, the neighborhood beefs, the child molestation victims, all types of people coming to my house and knocking on my door and talking to me about their stories. So I was like, well, maybe I can get something going on in the community to where we can all talk instead of them knocking on my door.”
For younger residents, Patton began another initiative, Create Art Not Violence. It’s an effort to help kids overcome traumatic experiences through poetry, hip-hop, arts and crafts, or film. His partners include several local schools, the Boys & Girls Club and the Museum of Contemporary Art Cleveland.
“He wears his trauma through his work,” said Alesia Corpening, 25, Patton’s business partner in a for-profit venture called Clubhouse Essentials, whose space houses the Ghetto Therapy sessions on Wednesday evenings. “He’s experienced a lot of different things, whether it’s being in prison or gun violence. It shows in his work.”
Patton would be the first to tell you that his prison experience helped turn him around — to the point that he’s a boon to the community, not a bane. Just as important, Corpening said, Patton is motivated by his notion that Outhwaite residents can work more closely together. He knows he got a late start in making the place better.
“That traumatic experience, there is something I see that man fight through every day,” she said. “The work he’s doing, the passion, the consistency that ‘nothing can get in the way of this journey I’ve set in front of me.’ ”
“Walter Patton has done an incredible job at fixing something he didn’t create, and he deserves credit for that,” Rich said. “But there are some people who think, ‘Well, he just made up for stuff he did. He’s just fixing his own mistakes.’ That’s not true. He is fixing our mistakes.”
If Patton ever needed a reminder of his mission, he got one on Oct. 22. On that day, one of the worst tragedies in the long history of Outhwaite occurred. A 12-year-old boy shot a 17-year-old in the chest and killed him in front of the Lonnie Burten Recreation Center. It’s the same location where, in 2005, Patton lost his best friend to gunfire.
There would be memorial T-shirts for the victim, Marlon Oliver. Balloons of every color festooned the fence at the recreation center. Dozens of young mourners came to the funeral home to send Marlon off, many angry at the loss of their friend, their pain compounding.
Through Create Art Not Violence, Patton has been documenting life in the cinder block projects. He made a short film called Before I Get to School and Marlon was in it. The shooter had been featured in one of Patton’s short music videos called The Projects Made Me.
I asked Patton if he was emotionally well after Marlon’s death. He told me he was OK, but he added, “I don’t grieve.”
And, of course, he skipped the funeral.