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Family forced to return to neighborhood violence

ST. PETERSBURG -- Tiffany Washington knew the chance she was taking returning to the neighborhood where grudges die slow.

But she was out of money. So nearly a week after a drive-by shooting at the house she rented in Harbordale, she moved back in. She told herself that she and the kids would be safe sleeping on the floor. They'd leave as soon as she could scrape together enough money to move.

On her first day back, her fears came true.

Washington's 15-year-old son, Telvin, was shot two times while walking home from getting a haircut on March 24.

Police think the shooting was retaliatory. On March 18, Telvin's sister was present during a shooting that killed 17-year-old Levaud Landers. Police say that she wasn't directly involved — a suspect (her boyfriend) was arrested — but that the victim's friends were taking their revenge on the Washingtons.

The drive-by happened after Landers' death. Someone in a car fired multiple bullets into the home, prompting Washington to pack up her seven children and leave. They floated between friends, relatives and hotels for nearly a week. Then money ran out.

She asked the Police Department for financial assistance to help them relocate, but her request was denied.

"I didn't have no choice," said Washington, 34, about returning to the neighborhood. Telvin was shot that first day back.

Like Washington, victims of crime often find themselves caught in a lurch between needing assistance to escape a dangerous situation and a lack of public funds available to help.

"It is a very frustrating situation all over the country. This story is an example of a real gap in our response to victims," said Susan Howley, director of public policy for the National Center for Victims of Crime, an advocacy organization based in Washington, D.C. "Relocation is just now starting to be provided in some states for victims of domestic violence or sexual assault, but even that is very limited."

The state Attorney General's Office doles out annual grants each year to help local communities and nonprofits assist victims. The money is designed to help with their emotional and physical needs, ranging from assisting with short-term housing to buying clothing for a rape victim whose clothes have been taken as evidence.

In Pinellas, six organizations received a total of more than $658,000 to help crime victims this year. However, the bulk of that money is funneled to victims of domestic or sexual violence, leaving little for victims of other types of crime.

"I think all crime is horrible, and anyone subjected to violence in any form is terrible and wrong," said Lisa Matzner, director of development for Religious Community Services Inc., a social service organization based in Pinellas that receives money from the state for victims. "It shouldn't cost people in our country to be victims of a crime."

Matzner's organization uses its grant money to staff its shelter for battered women.

Help a Child Inc., a Pinellas child abuse advocacy group that gets $133,828 for crime victims, said most is used to provide therapy for sexually abused children.

However, this year the organization added money for victims of gang violence to its grant renewal application.

"With community violence, those parents are traumatized, the children are traumatized," said Patsy Buker, president of Help a Child Inc. "How do we help the family feel safe, how do we help the children feel safe?"

The St. Petersburg Police Department is one of a few law enforcement agencies in the state that has its own trust fund to help victims in need. But that help is limited.

The Patterson Trust Fund, a private pool of money the department maintains, is mostly used to pay for continuing education for firefighters and police. Each year, the department gives victims about $2,500 for short-term help.

Bridging a gap

After the shooting at Washington's home, the department gave her trust money to pay for a few nights at a hotel. But Washington's $1,700 relocation request was denied.

"That trust is only meant to bridge a gap. We had already spent $700 or $800," said St. Petersburg police Chief Chuck Harmon. "She had several choices not to go back to the house, and she chose to do it."

Washington said she had no options. "We were nervous and scared," said Washington, a stay-at-home mom whose income is dependent on child support and disability. "But we knew we didn't have enough money to keep staying in motels."

That day, Washington tried to find some semblance of normal life. She began to clean. Telvin went out for a haircut.

On his way home, men began chasing him. Someone pulled out a large black revolver and fired. The teen was rushed to Bayfront Medical Center with gunshot wounds to the shoulder and buttocks. He was released from the hospital two days later.

Advocates contend that it would be cheaper in the long run to help people like Washington when the violence first occurs.

"What will be the cost to our community of not moving someone into a safer place?" Howley asked. "Suppose someone is shot and they're paralyzed and on Medicaid. What if someone is shot and killed and they were a bread winner and the family is debilitated?"

Of the almost $2-billion in federal victim compensation funds, about $590-million was distributed in fiscal year 2008, she said.

Howley's group is hoping to get more funds released in the future to help victims.

"We would like to see Congress release a billion this year," said Howley, a public policy specialist at the National Center for Victims of Crime. "That would give states the confidence to expand their crime victim compensation programs, and it would allow additional funding for local victim-serving agencies."

On a recent day, Washington and two of her children munched on lunch at a seafood restaurant.

Shortly after Telvin was shot, Washington took the money she had for her light, cable and phone bills and instead rented an apartment in North Pinellas.

She has been working temporary jobs to make ends meet. Their new neighborhood is diverse and quiet, she said. And each day the nightmare becomes more like a bad memory.

The kids do gripe about going to new schools. "But they understand," Washington said. "Momma feels safe out here."

Nicole Hutcheson can be reached at nhutcheson@sptimes.com or
(727) 893-8828.

Family forced to return to neighborhood violence 04/26/08 [Last modified: Tuesday, April 29, 2008 3:03pm]

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