TAMPA — The Grant Park apartment had come as a blessing — or so it seemed.
It was four bedrooms with plenty of space for Tiffany Danzey and her four young children. There was a big kitchen where Tiffany cooked, making meals for friends and family to pick-up and eat throughout the week. There was a basketball hoop out front where Danzey’s eldest son, Nicholus, 10, liked to play.
Tiffany, 33, was on a fixed income because of a disability. She had been on the Section 8 waiting list for almost 13 years before she finally received rental assistance last summer. Her new home was in a neighborhood of older apartments and single-family homes dotted with trees, near where Interstate 4 crosses Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard on the eastern edge of the city.
As rents skyrocketed across the country, it felt like a dream. For about seven months, it was.
But on a Sunday afternoon in March, a loud pop, followed by 30 more, shattered the family’s sense of safety.
As a bullet tore through the front door, Tiffany and her children dropped to the ground, pressing against the cold tile floor. They crawled from the living room to the back corner of the apartment.
The baby screamed. The middle children — ages two and four — asked, “Mommy, mommy, what’s happening?” Nicholus lay still, holding onto his mother as Tiffany prayed for her children’s lives.
In 2020 gun related injuries became the leading cause of death for children and teenagers in the United States, according to researchers who analyzed data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Black boys and adolescents were killed by firearms at a rate more than 20 times higher than their white peers, another study confirmed.
Since 2018, there have been more than 100 shootings at schools that have killed or injured students. The most recent and deadly mass shooting — in Uvalde, Texas — killed 19 elementary school kids and two teachers, earlier this week.
They’re the shootings we hear about, the ones that send shockwaves and capture national headlines. But kids in the United States are subjected to gun violence everyday: while riding bikes, walking to a friend’s house, watching TV at home.
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When shots are fired there’s a ripple effect, even when there is no physical injury or death.
“You don’t actually have to be hit by the bullet to feel the impact. You don’t even have to hear the bullet,” said Cameron Nereim, a doctor of adolescent medicine at the University of South Florida Health System. “But so many of these kids do, and their bodies never forget.”
And when children go through traumatic experiences, their nervous systems overload, he said. The stress can lead to other long term health problems, like high blood pressure and diabetes.
He’s seen it in his patients — elementary and middle schoolers who confide in him that they’re afraid of being shot; kids who have lost parents, siblings and friends.
They have nightmares and can’t sleep at night, Nereim said. They wear dark bags under their eyes, as they subconsciously search for safety.
When Nicholus heard the first pop, he thought it was fireworks.
He realized it was gunfire when more followed and his mother pulled him to the ground.
As glass sprayed and the bullets ricocheted and echoed, he focused on the breathing of his younger siblings.
Nicholus loved being a big brother.
As the oldest, he had taken on a natural role as a helper, getting his siblings dressed and feeding them dinner. He liked teaching them manners, always “yes, ma’am and no, ma’am,” but also showing them how to do flips on the bed.
His room in the house was the farthest from the front door, so when the shooting started, that’s where he and his family sheltered.
It was the place where Nicholus relaxed, and lay down to sleep. Where he hung a Tampa Bay Buccaneers blanket — and dreamed of growing up and playing pro football.
Now, he was lying down for cover.
Nicholus tried to stay calm for his brothers and sister, but he was terrified.
He wondered to himself “are we about to die?”
“That’s not something a 10-year-old should have to do,” his mother would later recall.
When the shooting stopped, Tiffany dialed 9-1-1.
“I need the police,” she told the dispatcher, breathing heavily. “Somebody was just shooting outside.”
A spokesperson for the Tampa Police Department said she could not comment on the shooting, including whether it was random or a targeted attack, because an investigation is still underway.
In front of the home, neighbors gathered to look at the damage. Whoever had fired the shots was long gone, but they left behind bullet holes in the walls of surrounding houses and pockmarked cars.
One bullet had struck the pole of the basketball hoop, leaving a gaping hole in the metal.
Inside, Tiffany grabbed a bag and started packing: shirts, socks, diapers, bathroom supplies.
She had heard the stories about other kids in her city who had recently been killed by firearms. A 14-year-old girl, a 13-year-old boy, a 4-year-old, were among the victims to die in the last year.
Holding onto her first-born son as he fought back tears, she knew her decision was made.
Her kids, she felt, were no longer safe in their own home.
They left that afternoon. They wouldn’t spend another night in the apartment.
“Home is supposed to be a safe haven,” said Vashaun Williams, a child psychiatrist at Gracepoint, a nonprofit behavioral health provider serving the Tampa Bay region.
When a trauma occurs at or near home, it can be especially triggering, Williams said.
Tiffany and her children know that well.
In weeks following the shooting, she moved in with extended family, sharing a two-bedroom apartment with seven other people and sleeping on a full-sized air mattress with her kids.
For the last two months, Tiffany has been looking for a new place to live. She called more than 20 properties, filled out forms and paid application fees, but nothing clicked.
“Rents are so high right now,” she said. “It’s really hard.”
In the aftermath of the shooting, Tiffany noticed her kids had lost their appetites and have had trouble sleeping. They are frightened by the sound of a drawer closing or when the garbage is collected.
It’s been especially hard on Nicholus, who remembers every detail.
He was scared to be outside and had to take time off from school. He’d dream his family was in an upstairs room, being shot at through the floor.
Tiffany is beginning to see pieces of her son return — the kid who loves math and watching silly YouTube videos, and playing on the playground until dark.
But joy and pain flicker on and off. Innocence was taken, and trauma remains.
“It hurts me to even talk about this,” Tiffany said. “My kids are my life. I just want them to be safe and happy. I want them to have a chance.”
Late this month, she got the phone call she had been waiting for.
A landlord agreed to accept her Section 8 voucher and rent her half of a duplex. It’s in the same part of the city that she had been living, but with some distance from her old apartment, which makes her feel better.
She hopes to move in July.
The Foundation for a Healthy St. Petersburg provides partial funding for Times stories on equity. It does not select story topics and is not involved in the reporting or editing. You can reach Lauren Peace at email@example.com.