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Seeking safety for Black American males impacted by trauma

This dispatch was added by one of our Nonprofit Neighbors. It does not represent the editorial voice of The Rapidian or Community Media Center.

Racism, socio-economic inequities and gender based violence are part of the lived experiences of Black men and youth in the Grand Rapids community. To address the generational trauma and post traumatic stress disorder affecting these men -- a wrap around services and culture of belonging is needed.

/Alex Holyoake

Underwriting support from:

This feature has been written by Kerby Killingham, clinician and lead peer support specialist with the Seeking Safety Program at Family Outreach Center. Family Outreach Center is a member of the Urban Core Collective.

“Time does not heal trauma experienced in childhood and adolescence. Trauma has a lifelong negative impact upon victims’ physical and mental health and social functioning, which leads to major public health and social problems.” - Dr. Vincent Felitti, The Lifelong Effects of Adverse Childhood Experiences

In the city of Grand Rapids, MI, between 2014 and 2016, 851 Black American boys and men between the ages of 14 and 24 were victims or witnesses of Part 1 violent crimes. Part 1 crimes include murder, rape, robbery, and aggravated assault. Black Americans are the largest minority group at 20% of the population. Black American males in the city experience disproportionate amounts of violent crime. Although they make up 10% of the city population, in 2016 they composed 30% of all male victims or witnesses to Part 1 violent crime.

Immediately following their victimization or the witnessing of victimization, these boys and young men face three problems; one they suffer mental and/or physical injury; they are responsible for finding their own remedies and support while in their traumatized condition; and when they do find a source of support, usually each source addresses only one or two issues, not the full range of their trauma.

In short, our victimized boys and young men of color face problems of access to needed support, and disjointed responses that reflect the silos of governmental funding for each need.

As a Black American male clinician working with younger men of color in the Seeking Safety program at Family Outreach Center, I have experienced firsthand how therapeutic it is for them to work with a clinician that looks like them and relates culturally to them due to actual lived experience. Also, I have experienced how essential holistic wrap around services are. The young men that represent this demographic need many issues resolved or at least assisted with simultaneously such as, dysfunctional households, probation, poverty, homelessness, substance abuse and mental health disorders.

At Family Outreach Center we have discovered that these men have cognitive residue that stems from years of exposure to negative cognitions. So to have services that extend beyond the traditional 12 weeks, or 26 sessions is essential. While engaged and active in the Seeking Safety program, participants receive trauma-focused group therapy, individual therapy with EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization Reprocessing), supports coordination, and peer support services.

In addition, there are key factors that contribute to low retention rates once these young men acquire access to needed support. These factors are poverty, housing, and substance use. Poverty is a barrier to retention because participants cannot focus on dealing with higher level needs like healing trauma and growth when their basic needs are not met.

Attending trauma focused groups such as the Seeking Safety group at Family Outreach Center is low priority; in fact, there may not be time to attend when they are trying to meet basic needs for food, medical care, transportation, or jobs. 

Poverty creates a survivor mentality that leads participants to make decisions that are not good for them or even illegal, in order to meet their needs or stay safe. Poverty also, complicates the services programs such as Seeking Safety offer due to young men in need of these services inability to maintain any form of consistency, such as keeping in touch with participants because they may not have a phone or not have any minutes left. This lack of stability and inability to meet basic needs also increases their risk of being re-victimized.

Housing insecurity is a barrier to retention because it creates an unpredictable and unstable life. Fundamentally, it causes physical, mental, and emotional disorder, making it harder to focus on higher level needs. Young men who “double up” with friends or family or who are homeless might have to move frequently, changing addresses and making it harder for Peer Support Specialists, or other staff members to find them, and easier for them to not return to group. They might not have something as simple as a calendar to keep track of the day of the week or appointments.

Stable housing creates security and organization, helps avoid future victimization, and frees up mental and emotional energies to focus on higher level needs.

Right now, the Grand Rapids housing market is white hot and has a real issue with affordable housing. It is difficult for this population, which already struggles with poverty, to find stable housing they can afford. Furthermore, if they have a criminal record, their chance of securing housing can be greatly reduced. If that record includes a felony, their chances are even worse, and criminal sexual conduct charges, violence charges, or weapon charges will eliminate most housing opportunities.

Substance use is a barrier to retention on all levels. It is a barrier to group participation because some participants go to jail before they can complete the Program. It is a barrier to employment because their legal history might preclude them from a job, a positive drug screen might cause them to lose an existing job, or substance use might cause poor work performance leading to job loss. It can be a barrier to securing stable housing if they have a criminal record with a drug charge within the last five years.

The physical basic needs that impede young men representing low socioeconomic communities, serve as opportunities for corporations, non-profit organizations, religious institutions, and local citizens to contribute to our entire violence epidemic without depleting too much time or resources. This in turn provides for a better platform, or a greater sense of stability for these young men to then have the affordance in life to truly pursuit happiness.

The Seeking Safety program at Family Outreach Center believes that servicing victims and witnesses of trauma benefits not only the participant receiving services but the whole community.

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