When tragic events occur, it often falls to victim services organizations to help traumatized individuals pick up the pieces. And they step in to offer support to the broader community after horrifying incidents take place in public spaces, such as the mass shooting Feb. 17 at the Olney Transportation Center and the one just three days later at a bowling alley in Montgomery County.
The transportation center shooting left eight people, ages 17 to 70, wounded. The shooting at Old Town Alley in East Norriton left one man dead and four members of his family injured.
“The word victim is not singular anymore — it’s plural, it affects the whole community as a whole. So that’s why all of our services are free to victims and witnesses and community members,” said Melany Nelson, executive director of Northwest Victim Services.
Nelson’s agency is one of six nonprofits in the city that offer their support to community members after a violent crime occurs. Olney Transportation Center falls into her organization’s territory.
“So after that shooting at Broad and Olney, I made myself available, so I told people that if you know someone who was a witness to that shooting … they can contact me directly on my cell phone, which is 267-808-0350, if they are in need of therapy, because the victims were affected and the witnesses were affected and the community as a whole was affected,” Nelson said.
And, yes, she asked WHYY News to publish her phone number.
Victim service groups offer counseling, financial assistance, and help navigating courtrooms, all free of charge. Through a collaboration with the local police districts and hospital networks such as Einstein and Temple, Northwest Victim Services can spring into action 24/7 when gun violence occurs.
“For me and for my advocates, we are not desk-bound. We are boots on the ground,” Nelson said. “Pre-COVID, I would go to the victims’ houses. I would sit in the victims’ houses, and I would actually go to Einstein and I would go to Temple and see the victims while they’re in the hospital.”
Last year was a particularly deadly year in Philadelphia — the deadliest in three decades as the gun violence epidemic continued to surge. And 2021 has not been much better: In January alone, there were 50 homicides, a 32% increase over last year.
Non-fatal shootings, like the one in Olney, have also increased in 2021, by 71% compared to last year around this time.
Victim services agencies are, as a result, noticing an increased need for their services.
“Just in 2020, I think Temple probably referred over 200 gunshot victims to Northwest Victim Services, alone, and that’s just one hospital,” Nelson said.
Natasha McGlynn, interim executive director of the Anti-Violence Partnership of Philadelphia, manages an agency that serves more than 3,000 people annually.
“And so in the midst of a global pandemic, you’re also dealing with a gun violence epidemic, we’re also dealing with a mental health crisis as a result of the forced social isolation of the pandemic,” McGlynn said.
Another distressing trend has emerged as the gun violence epidemic continues to spiral, McGlynn said: revictimization.
“Maybe let’s look at a hypothetical, this is like a mother, and she started getting counseling services from AVP five years ago because her son was murdered,” McGlynn said. “Now, we might see that her nephew has been murdered. And so now she’s been revictimized. So there’s been an increase in the revictimization, and also an increase in how many family members are being affected.”
When a mass shooting occurs, McGlynn said, that number multiplies, and her organization is feeling the weight of this devastating year.
“And so, with the exponential increase in violence, we have seen [at] our very small but mighty agency an exponential increase in the request for our services,” McGlynn said. One of the things her agency struggles with these days is capacity, she said.
“And to the effect that I am the interim executive director, one of the things that I really struggle with and we as an agency struggle with is capacity.”
Chantay Love, a co-founder and program director of Every Murder Is Real Healing Center, said her nonprofit has three goals: “It’s to heal, prevent, and intervene.”
Helping with trauma, and more
EMIR offers resources ranging from therapy and alternative healing to relocation and financial assistance for funeral costs.
“Now, with a level of violence that you see now, we need to do our work a little wider,” Love said. “And so it’s not just about healing after the fact. It’s also about those who have been exposed and have never had services, and so can we also offer them some services to heal from some things, some of their trauma that they might have witnessed years ago.”
She said she and her team had a feeling that “this pandemic was going to be more trouble or more pain than we probably would have seen in a very long time.”
Love joined local elected officials Friday at a press conference at the Olney Transportation Center to call for tighter gun laws. Reflecting on it afterward, she added a request for lawmakers in Harrisburg.
“What we’re looking at is not only common-sense gun laws but resources to help repair a community that is being ripped to pieces — behind a lot of pain,” Love said, adding that systemic racism and inequities are playing a part in fueling the gun violence epidemic.
The Anti-Violence Partnership is also working with government officials to address some issues victims of gun violence face. Among those is the cost of crime scene cleanups.
“And so one of the things that came from that research was that we found huge discrepancies or gaps in the system. And we think of violence as a system, right? And the thing about crime scene cleanup, these companies … they’re unregulated by the state and they can charge anywhere between $2,000 and $20,000 for their services,” McGlynn said. “And so if you look at violence and who is being most impacted, these are low-income families, often families of color, and so if someone dies, the state will only reimburse them up to $500. So oftentimes, these families are left cleaning up the scene by themselves.”
After a December presentation to City Council by the Anti-Violence Partnership, cleanup issues were included in a resolution introduced by Councilmember Curtis Jones, passed Feb. 4, that calls for public hearings to look for more equitable solutions to policies “that place the logistical and financial burden on the families of homicide victims.”
In Montco, a difference, though not for the better
In the aftermath of the mass shooting at Our Town Alley, Victim Services Center of Montgomery County is teaming up with the Keystone Crisis Intervention Team to provide help for those experiencing trauma. A Zoom session is scheduled for 7 p.m. Tuesday, March 2. Those interested can register here.
“It’s really an hour session virtually for people that were there at the scene, or people also in your neighborhood, or anyone that’s kind of heard, that saw that on the news, and it maybe triggered something they experienced,” said Erin Milbourne, the center’s direct services supervisor.
The Montco agency is primarily a rape crisis center that offers victims counseling, as well as help navigating the court system. But Milbourne added that the center offers comprehensive services to assist victims of any types of violent crimes — such as through the virtual session resulting from the bowling alley mass shooting.
“The blessing is we don’t do them often,” Milbourne said. “But needless to say when there is a need, we can certainly make sure we’re responding to the community, and in a way that’s structured and really offers safety.”
Milbourne has been working at the center for 13 years, and though she said violence has its ebbs and flows, she has still seen a greater need for services overall since the pandemic began.
“I think that that could be people in isolation, and maybe their previous victimization or previous experience with any kind of trauma is maybe resonating more and so people are like, ‘I need some kind of connection. I need some kind of help,’” Milbourne said.
A greater toll on those who seek to help
As the gun violence epidemic takes its toll, it’s also taking its toll on the people helping them navigate through the trauma.
“We have seen an increase of reports of vicarious trauma experienced by our staff. And I believe this is something that you’ll see throughout all victim service agencies and social service providers — that there is both such a toll on the community, those who we are serving, but also the providers who are providing that care to the community,” said McGlynn, of the Anti-Violence Partnership of Philadelphia.
AVP is trying to shift the workplace culture to the best of its ability, but McGlynn said there is only so much it can do with the resources at hand.
A lack of resources for nonprofit agencies such as these is being compounded by the increase in gun violence, the organizations’ leaders said.
“We don’t see resources from the city,” Love said. “We’re fortunate to receive funding from the state and some faith leaders who support our work, but it will need to be done in a larger way because I don’t think that we all kind of grasp what has happened.”
The nonprofits want people to know about them and to know that they are not alone.
“… More than anything, it’s making sure that people know that when you experience the worst moment of your life, that there are agencies like us there to help guide you through it all,” McGlynn said.
Nelson, of Northwest Victim Services, said that when she makes house visits, it’s personal.
“I understand the importance of having those victims see you and see that you care,” she said. “For me, this is not a job. This is my passion. This is what I love to do.”
WHYY is one of over 20 news organizations producing Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project on solutions to poverty and the city’s push towards economic justice. Follow us at @BrokeInPhilly.
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