Philadelphia, Pennsylvania--Tony Thompson and Shardae Wescott spend their days with some of the most desperate, angry, frightened and traumatized young men in this city.
As social workers for Healing Hurt People, their job is to help victims of violence understand the mental and emotional toll of their injuries and to help them heal without more violence.
It's intense, difficult work. Most people, even others in their field, don't understand what they do. Most social workers don't visit their clients at home in
neighborhoods where even
those clients fear for their lives, or talk them out of settling scores with guns.
Thompson and Westcott each works with about 25 clients at a time, primarily young men being treated for injuries at Hahnemann University Hospital. Their efforts, even combined with the teams serving clients out of four other emergency departments in the city, barely
puts a dent in the problem.
What saves them from burn out? Each other. And the hard-won progress they see in the young men who stick with the program.
"We can't reach everybody. We do the best with what we got and help the young people out as much as possible, but it's tough sledding sometimes," Thompson says. "So many of them are really raw when they come in."
"It takes time," Wescott says. "A lot of the changes we see aren't huge or obvious, but they're huge changes for them. "
Three of the Thompson and Wescott's clients shared their stories with The Plain Dealer in late March.
Lamar Anderson, 25, South Philadelphia
Time with program: 5 days
Lamar Anderson is one of Thompson's "raw" ones, just entering the program, still angry and in pain.
The injury that brought him to Healing Hurt People, bruised ribs from a fistfight in late
April, is just the latest and least visible in a long line of hurts.
Anderson, 25, is covered in tattoos. The 252 below his eye signifies an East Coast Bloods gang, Sex Money Murda. Sitting in the program's office less than five days after first meeting Thompson, he's clearly uncomfortable. He knows his appearance is intimidating. He seems torn between a longstanding instinct to play up that menace and the still-
dawning realization that here, he doesn't need to.
He swears often and without apology. At the first click of a camera shutter, his head whips around and he poses, grim faced and dead-eyed, for the camera.
Anderson grew up in Watts in South Los Angeles and was a member of one of the Bloods
gangs there. His childhood, he says, was "dangerous and scary as shit."
"I carried a gun at the age of 7. I couldn't even shoot it or get my hand around the gun. From 7 to 12 is when I started seeing dead bodies on the ground and people being killed. They started sending me on top of buildings to watch for police."
He was shot at several times, and says that when he was 11 he was kidnapped by rival gang members, tied up and held for ransom in a car trunk for 16 hours.
At 17, he arrived in South Philadelphia. He was shot eight times in two separate incidents only months apart. He was targeted because of his tattoos, he says, and because he'd beat up one of the guys who shot him.
Both times Anderson was shot in the back. At least in Watts, he says, nobody shoots you from behind.
Talking to Anderson is a bit like talking to two different people. There's the terrified child toting an oversized gun, still hoping for a way out, and the hard, violent and frightening ex-gangster who doesn't trust anyone.
One minute he's proud of his former gang ties. "You wanna know what these mean, look it up," he says of his tattoos. The next he acknowledges the burden of his past. "It's hard to get a job like this," he says, gesturing to his face. "How can I get hired? Only jobs I've had are washing dishes in the state penitentiary."
It's not yet clear which of these versions of Lamar Anderson will win out.
Today, he's made it to the office and his first group therapy session. It's a start.
"I'm glad you called me," he tells Thompson. "For real."
Ellis Smith, 21, North Philadelphia
Time in program: 8 months
Just about everyone in Philadelphia saw what brought Ellis Smith to Healing Hurt People.
In June of 2015, he was riding the El train with his 1-year-old daughter when transit police accused him of evading the $2 fare. Smith said he'd paid. Over the next 15 minutes he argued with officers who wanted to throw him off the train. A growing number of officers converged on the train car. Smith was pushed into the side of the car, pulled from the train and pushed into the wall, all while still holding his infant daughter.
The incident was caught on cell phone video and shared on just about every media site in town.
Smith's daughter was frightened but unhurt, and he wasn't badly injured. He spent the night in jail and went to the hospital for lower back pain when he was released.
He entered Helping Hurt People to deal with powerful, lingering feelings of anger and shame.
"People were saying I didn't pay the fare. They're thinking I put my child in danger over $2," says Smith, who maintains he paid the fare that day. Surveillance video of him going through the turnstile, which he's confident would prove it, was unavailable in the one area he entered that day due to construction, transit police later told Smith's attorney.
Smith, who had just received five years probation for a drug charge ("for young mistakes I made that I corrected and I never would do again," he says) was charged with resisting arrest, disorderly conduct and fare evasion. The fare evasion charge was later dropped, and he paid a fine and attended a class to settle the disorderly conduct charge.
"I just got on probation. I wasn't trying to get in no trouble, especially not over [transit] police."
At first he was so angry that all he could think about was retaliating. "Without HHP, I'd be dead or in jail. I was looking to react," he says. Thompson and peer support from weekly group therapy sessions have been pivotal in helping him let go of what happened, he said.
"It's like being part of a team, for people who haven't been part of a team before. Everybody is really respectful, and really real. It's actually kinda nice."
Smith says he feels lucky he and his daughter weren't hurt any worse on that train platform.
"A lot of altercations with police that go viral like that, people die. I think about that."
Mike Parks, 35, North Philadelphia
Time in program: 1½ years
It's been more than a year, but Mike Parks is still afraid.
He talks softly, his thin shoulders sloping in toward his chest as though he's trying to occupy less space, attract less notice.
A jagged five-inch scar emerges from the dark edge of a scraggly beard on his sunken left cheek, ending in the ruined geography of his half-closed left eye.
It's impossible not to notice, and Parks knows it. Little kids look at him and ask what happened, he says. He thinks they're frightened of him.
For a long time, he wouldn't talk about it. He wouldn't describe the three men, how they attacked him with their hands and with bricks, dragged him to an alley, breaking his finger, his hip, his shoulder and so many bones in his face.
The men thought they knew him. He looked like someone they wanted to hurt, Parks says. No one was there to stop them, or point out they had the wrong guy.
Parks thought for sure he'd die. When he didn't, he was left with a paralyzing fear.
"I don't go out at night," he says. "I don't know if a person's going to walk up on my blind side again and hit me. I be cautious."
Parks feels safe at Healing Hurt People. It's about the only place he goes outside his own home, he says.
In group therapy, Parks found the courage to speak about his attackers, after hearing from another client, who had been shot in the face by her ex-boyfriend. "Hearing her tell her story made me open up more and more. This sister was in a wheelchair and she was sharing."
"I come here to tell people how I feel on the inside."
Often, that's afraid. He's afraid of the eye surgery he'll have soon, because he might lose the sight in his damaged eye completely when doctors try to remove the bone fragments
that still cause him daily pain.
A brother who lives in Hawaii wants him to visit, but Parks says he is too afraid to fly because his aunt died in the September 11th terrorist attacks. Boats are out, too.
"I've seen what happened to those cruise boats in the water," he says.
"Are you going to continue to let your fears define you," Thompson asks, gently.
It was Thompson who helped Parks understand and talk about the many traumas and losses in his life before he was attacked.
Parks is his mother's only child, but he has 21 half siblings-- 15 brothers and 7 sisters. Two of these brothers are dead, shot and killed. One is serving a life sentence in prison on a drug charge. A fourth was killed in a fire in 2007, which also claimed Parks' uncle and a beloved grandmother.
When the fire happened, Parks had just been released from prison after serving ten years for selling drugs. It was an experience he says "changed me right around."
He holds out his cell phone, where a grainy photo of his grandmother glows on the small screen. He looks at it every night, he says, and reads the psalms of David, the ones she told him to read each day while he was in prison.
"The Lord is my light and my salvation;
Whom shall I fear?
The Lord is the strength of my life;
Of whom shall I be afraid?"
When Parks was attacked, he didn't trust anyone at all. Now, he has a support system, he says. "Me and him got really close to each other," he says of Thompson. "I can call him if things go up in my head. He can tell me what to do and what not to do."
"I love him for that."
Where would he be right now without the support?
Softly, he answers: "I'd be lost."