PATERSON, NJ – Like many cities across the U.S., Paterson is facing a rise in illegal gun use this year, an increase many say has been prompted by job losses, health issues, and stress related to the pandemic. Since the start of 2020, there have been over 100 shooting incidents, including 20 homicides, which is a 25% increase compared to this time last year. 

To address the uptick in Paterson, law enforcement has taken several steps, including increased patrols and seizing nearly 170 illegal weapons off the streets.  But a new effort is also taking shape in Paterson, a city where the number of gun-related incidents over the past decade has led officials to declare it a “public health crisis.”

Thanks to a $1.38 million federal Victims of Crime Act (VOCA) grant, St. Joseph’s University Medical Center worked to develop the Paterson Healing Collective, the first hospital-based violence intervention program in Passaic County. 

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St. Joseph’s is one of nine hospitals in the Garden State sharing a $20 million federal Victims of Crime Act (VOCA) grant, which Attorney General Gurbir Grewal said is one of the biggest investments in the country towards “disrupting the cycle of violence.” 

“Reducing gun violence requires more than just policing the problem away,” Mayor Andre Sayegh recently said. And, the newly-developed program to help the city “address the senseless cycle of violent crime” is “needed now more than ever,” the mayor said. 

The goal of hospital-based violence intervention programs is to link victims of gunshots, stabbings or similar incidents with therapy, mentorship or other social services designed to help them recover and prevent them from retaliating against their attackers.

The federal funding, which will be used over a 21-month period, will launch seven new programs, like the one in Paterson, and expand two existing ones, including New Jersey’s first hospital-based violence intervention program at University Hospital in Newark, and a new program at Jersey City Medical Center.

Kevin Slavin, President and Chief Executive Officer of St. Joseph’s Healthcare System, said, “It’s been a difficult time for cities in America. There’s been an increase in violence and social injustice. The shooting of George Floyd, as well as COVID, has created additional stresses for people.”

Hospital-based violence intervention programs have shown signs of success in cities across the country, such as Newark, by encouraging victims to make meaningful and positive changes in their lives. Those steps, Slavin said, help keep them out of the emergency room.

The grant, Slavin told TAPinto Paterson, has enabled the hospital to work on reaching victims “so that they can break away from the spiral of violence.” Given the current climate, Slavin believes the timing is right “to let people know there’s hope and great resources available.”

Liza Chowdhury, the project director of the Paterson Healing Collective, said, “We wish we could stop all instances of violence immediately, but that is not reality.”

“So many people have been harmed and traumatized in the last few months, along with the culmination of the lack of resources, housing crisis, lack of recreation, social isolation, mass grief due to the pandemic, it is difficult to just say ‘stop the shootings,’” Chowdhury said.

According to Chowdhury, effecting change will take building relationships and trust. It’s also a matter of having “the resources they need right away to help them see another way – by showing them and supporting them with their goals,” Chowdhury said.

‘The Golden Hour’

An important aspect of any hospital-based violence intervention program is acting quickly after a victim arrives for medical treatment.

The goal is to intervene during “the golden hour,” or the first 60 minutes after an individual suffers a traumatic injury. During that period when patients are being treated, they also tend to be the most scared or vulnerable.

That’s also when they might be the most willing to accept help.

Through the programs, specially trained workers meet with victims bedside and help them pursue changes that will reduce the possibility they’ll wind up reinjured and back in the emergency room. 

The process involves anything from connecting victims with counseling to helping them find safe housing or steady employment, removing gang-affiliated tattoos or obtaining a government identification card.

Chowdhury said, “This program is crucial because it merges credible messenger mentoring, hospital response, case management, mental health and community intervention, which is a multi-pronged effort to provide a holistic approach to not only address violence but also maintain some form of service provision for survivors so that we can make sure they feel supported and safe to thrive in life.”

“Our hope is that we become the agency that can help the community resolve conflict and utilize mediation, restorative justice and resource allocation to help reduce violence in the community,” Chowdhury said.

According to the Health Alliance for Violence Intervention, at least 40% of patients treated after a violent incident in a city are re-injured within five years and one in five die within five years. 

A study from John Jay College found that victims of violence often suffer from psychological trauma, along with physical injuries. But, there can also be other negative affects – victims may be forced to take time off from work or lose a job, which could leave them and their families homeless. 

Zellie Thomas, leader of Paterson’s Black Lives Matter group, said activists have been pushing for the city “to support and invest in anti-violence interruption programs” because “violence intervention – not more police – is what is proven to reduce gun violence.”

“I think many folks want to blame COVID for the violence in the city because it’s an easy scapegoat,” Thomas said. “The real cause of violence in the city, and in any city, is the lack of access to resources and opportunities. What will reduce the violence is not a cure for COVID, but a cure for violence,” Thomas said.

He added: “The more successful the Paterson Healing Collective is, the safer our communities will be.”


Going Beyond ‘The Four Walls’

Over the past two decades, the healthcare industry has taken strides to “get outside of the four walls of the hospital” and find ways “to impact community health,” Slavin said. “It depends on the community – each community has its own health needs.”

“In inner cities, there are violence issues,” Slavin acknowledged. 

At St. Joseph’s, Slavin said they work regularly to address issues that affect the health and well-being of Patersonians, such as housing, food, transportation and, now, violence prevention.

“We are in the process of doing a strong education to emergency room physicians and staff so they can, at an appropriate moment when a trauma victim comes in, have a conversation at the right time and connect them with resources,” Slavin said.

The initiative’s success will be evaluated by how many victims are connected to services and the number of referrals made, he said.

“Ultimately, we want to see those individuals not return to the emergency room after violent situations,” Slavin said. “Ultimately, we’d like to see violence in the city reduced.”

The staff at the Paterson Healing Collective, including Chowdhury, whom Slavin described as “a dynamic force” that is “well versed in community intervention techniques,” is “an incredible team” to work with, he said. 

Serving as the collective’s Assistant Director is longtime Paterson activist Casey Melvin whom Slavin referred to as  “a trusted, well-known community influencer.”

Starting A Conversation

In early October, the Paterson Healing Collective began outreach to the parts of the city most impacted by violence in order to let residents know about its services. Since then, the non-profit has taken on 15 clients, according to Chowdhury.

“During these intakes, we have brokered conversations around peace,” she said. “Mostly everyone who has walked through our door has taken advantage of our services. We have a partnership with CUMAC, NJ Reentry, St. Joseph’s hospital, OASIS, and the health coalition of Passaic County.”

The grant funding and partnerships can help survivors “get their needs quicker,” whether it’s medical treatment, food, bills or transportation,” she said.

“We are providing support while providing a pseudo family to survivors, so they can feel safe and supported,” Chowdhury said, adding, “This is extremely important.”

“People are tired but also extremely traumatized. They want to work but it is difficult to find employment. We are also assisting them with looking for employment. In addition to this, we also have therapists that can provide therapy if the participants are ready. This can help them process their trauma,” Chowdhury said.

Besides assisting victims of violence, the Collective has been initiating conversations about trauma and healing with the larger community, she said.

Doing so, she said, can help “shift the narrative citywide to understand why violence occurs so that we can get to the root cause.”

“Our goal is to not only stop the violence, we want to begin conversations about mental health and sustaining peace in the community,” Chowdhury said.

‘Stop the Bleed’

In addition to its outreach, the Paterson Healing Collective has been conducting “Stop the Bleed” trainings throughout the city in collaboration with Black Lives Matter. 

“Since violence is still present and there is a sense of urgency and heightened fear amongst communities, the trainings help to prepare them on how to respond when violence does occur,” Chowdhury said.

By showing citizens how to provide first aid, use tourniquets, dress wounds and call 911, it can empower them and make them “more informed on how to respond to violence,” she said. 

“It is a form of intervention that the community can do for themselves so they can take care of each other when violence does occur,” Chowdhury said.

There has already been an incident where a resident used the skills he learned during a ‘Stop the Bleed’ training to help a young man who was shot, she said.

Thomas said, “A person who is bleeding can die from blood loss within seven minutes,” adding that “if we turn bystanders into ‘immediate responders,’ we can save lives.”

“If we can have ‘immediate responders’ in all of the hotspots, we can decrease the number of fatal shootings in the city.”

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