Youth provided compelling stories confirming exposure to neighborhood violence and their responses to this exposure. An overarching theme of safe and unsafe places emerged as youth described people, places, their movement and activities in their neighborhoods.
Identifying and Navigating Safe and Unsafe Places
Youth described their neighborhoods as containing both safe and unsafe areas. Even the same location was often seen as having elements of both danger and enjoyment. The youths’ descriptions illuminated how they made these distinctions between safe and unsafe spaces (e.g. time of day, certain activity, etc), as in this quote from a young male pertaining to a recreation center:
S1: The swimming pool area is fine. Um, in the summertime a lot of kids go there just to swim, to cool off. Um, the basketball part for the most part is alright. Um, just late at night, is when the games going on, little fights break out, just a few times, a couple shootings happened, um. The playground, it’s fun for the little kids. … And the football field, it’s just it helps the kids out. That’s where they go to stop being around the bad people they hang with and everything…It’s pretty good.
This young female’s description of the area near her home reflected a more general distinction about different locations in the neighborhood being either safe or unsafe.
S7: A little boy got shot around the corner. So, my mom don’t like for us to hang out cause kids might get caught in the cross fire when somebody is shooting… usually, my mom is always with me so I don’t feel unsafe. I don’t go out on my own too much….I just go you know, to the corner store sometimes, but that’s only right there at the corner of my block. So, I don’t feel unsafe…...
In the neighborhood, youth described exposure to guns, drugs, and unsafe places as stressors. Exposure to guns included seeing guns, hearing gunshots, hearing about someone being shot, knowing someone who was shot, and like this young female, seeing cross-fire in front of her house.
S3: They was like, actually like shooting past me. One was standing down the street and the other one was standing up the street and they was actually like firing back and forth…I was shocked…I was just shocked. I couldn’t move or nothing ‘cause I couldn’t believe that it was happening.
Youth described knowing about drug dealers on certain blocks, and identified drugs as something that they would change about their neighborhoods. This young female says:
S7: There’s a lot of corners where people hang out and sell drugs and stuff. And around the corner where the boy got shot, there’s like drug houses around there.
Youth had highly developed and nuanced assessments differentiating safe and unsafe places and described various strategies to stay physically safe based on these assessments (e.g., go with someone else, not at night, don’t bump into anybody, avoid certain blocks, avoid recreation center during certain activities). Navigating the neighborhood took a constant, conscious effort. Youth were clear about settings that they knew were unsafe and had strategies to avoid these settings. For example:
S1: At, usually in [this neighborhood] everything is pretty dangerous so we have to be careful. Um, especially late at night. You don’t want ever to be outside late at night in Southwest….That’s why I try not to go out at night. So, when you’re around there you want to be as calm as possible. You don’t want to say anything to anybody. Whoever you want, you want to just talk to them and get where you got to go. ………Um, usually when I’m walking around my neighborhood I’m kinda looking around. Cause you have to be careful. What you say to people, you have to make sure you don’t bump into nobody the wrong way. Or, problems can start.
Many youth would not affirm to feeling unsafe. Yet, upon probing, youth described avoiding places that they felt were unsafe. This young female at first says she does not feel unsafe, but then talks about how she moves about her neighborhood to avoid ‘unsafe’ places.
S9: Um, a couple places, not, I mean I never really feel, I never really feel unsafe, but like I’m always aware that like, certain places are just like, are not, I’m not supposed to be there, or not good for me. But I never really feel afraid. But I just, I know like on my way home from school or something like that, I catch the bus from “#” and “I” Street, and if I’m around there sometimes I don’t feel, sometimes I don’t feel safe… it’s like a lot of people out and just, people that kinda seem like they’re like negative individuals. …sometimes I see people fighting or people cursing or being really loud, so I always, I’m always like aware, that maybe I should just hurry up and try to get home, but I never feel scared.
Danger could be contained by identifying the unsafe ‘micro’ environments within neighborhoods. By using strategies to avoid unsafe places, youth minimized exposure to physical violence and limited stress associated with fear of violence.
Youth also identified neighborhood resources, including afterschool programs, sports and activities, recreation centers, schools, and parks. Afterschool programs are particularly important to younger youth, providing a place for youth to “stop being around bad people” as quoted above by S1 and also a place to go with others where they can enjoy activities and do homework.
S7: After school a lot of times I go to the after school program with my friends, and sometimes we have different kinds of activities after we get done our homework. So we like to go there and then I just go home from there.
Youth identified some places as both safe and unsafe. Some youth described school, recreation centers, and parks as places they enjoyed, while these locations were also sources of stress and threatened safety. This duality emerged both across youths and within individuals. This is not to say that these places were always unsafe or stressful. Many youth enjoyed school, and found the parks and recreation centers to be a place of freedom and fun with friends and family. Context was key to distinguishing safe and unsafe and signified youths’ awareness of their environments.
Interpersonal, Violence-related Stressors
Youth were asked about stressful situations in their lives. They identified several types of interpersonal conflicts including bullying and threats, disrespect, disagreements, and physical fighting. In describing disrespect, one young female noted that disrespect was something she wanted to respond to because it made her angry.
S6: A time when somebody disrespected me was when they called me a “B” and I tried to avoid it by walking away and trying be a bigger person.
INT: OK. Did you say anything back to them?
S6: No…I was thinking about going to hit em, and I was feeling mad.
INT: OK. Um, how did other people expect you to handle that?
S6: They expected me to handle it by hitting her.
INT: Ok. And you didn’t.
This situation exemplifies the decision not to allow the situation to escalate to physical violence. She indicates the previous preparation by her mother, who said “…not to worry about them, because words can’t hurt you.”
Disagreements pose a substantial stressor, occurring in school, with friends and others. Disagreements with family members were particularly stressful.
S6: I was arguing with my, one of my family members cause she thought she was right and she was not right….it made me felt bad because I was arguing with one of my family members.
Disagreements with family members may be more salient to youth because these important relationships often provide a buffer from other sources of stress.
Youth identified a variety of family members (father, mother, grandparent, sibling, aunt) and key non-family members (friends and other adults) as people they could talk to, confide in, and trust. This ability to identify someone to talk to, trust, and confide in was a key asset for youth’s daily lives. The strong presence of mothers permeated the interviews with both boys and girls speaking to the importance of mothers, as someone important in their lives, someone they admired and looked to for guidance and help. One young male said:
S18: Yes, because I used to have a anger problem and like if it wasn’t for my mom I would be in the streets and all that, fighting, shooting people, doing drugs, selling drugs, all that in the streets. But I’m not cause my mom helped me control my anger and all that and you know showed me different ways I could avoid different situations. Some people don’t have that and that’s why our society is the way it is now cause they don’t have good role models.
Strategies for Coping with Neighborhood and Interpersonal Violence
Youth talked about a variety of strategies used to manage stress associated with both neighborhood and interpersonal violence. Strategies focused on how youth dealt with problems, tried to stay safe, or positioned themselves to be successful. Five core sub-themes emerged pertaining to: disagreements, disrespect, safety, stress, and success. Many of the strategies for disagreements and disrespect were similar. These strategies included confronting or fighting back, ignoring a situation or walking away, and talking or saying something. For example, one girl talked about how she handled disrespect.
S17: Well when I was younger, whenever I got disrespected it always resulted into fighting and stuff like that but as I got older and matured more I found out that fighting wasn’t always the answer and I tried talking out the situation with the person; telling them how I felt and stuff and sometimes it worked and sometimes it didn’t. Sometimes the person still wanted to fight or still had the problem with me, so I just walked away and told an adult or something. Or my friends would try to talk to them.
The strategies for safety that youth described highlight the duality of safe and unsafe. As previously described, youth would state that they did not feel unsafe, yet described many ways they navigate the neighborhood in order to stay safe. For example:
S2: Cause I know my way around the neighborhood and I know what type of people live around there and who lives where and all that kind of stuff….See, most of the time I see my friends every day and I travel with them a lot. And I just feel safer when I’m with them… there’s not too many places that I go by myself except over to the park, and I feel pretty safe there ‘cause most of my friends be over there.
Reframing the meaning of ‘safe’, by using various coping strategies (e.g. knowing who lives where) allowed these youth to mitigate the stress associated with living in violent neighborhoods. In addition to identifying and navigating safe and unsafe settings, other prominent strategies included running, walking away, getting out of the situation fast, avoidance, knowing your way around the neighborhood, and travelling with others.