After Avante Holmes’ apartment on the South Side was broken into a few days ago, he thought he knew who was responsible. On Monday night, the 21-year-old spotted them in their West Woodlawn neighborhood and confronted them to demand his belongings back.
Then he was shot in the head and died, his aunt told the Tribune as she fought back tears Tuesday morning across the street from where Holmes lived in the Parkway Gardens housing complex.
“I am so tired of losing people in my family. I am so tired,” his aunt, Octavia Mitchell, said after a sleepless night. Mitchell runs the Heal Your Heart Foundation, which she started after losing her 18-year-old son, Izael Jackson, in a fatal police shooting 13 years ago. Her niece, Jaya Beemon, was fatally wounded by random gunfire in February 2020 at a convenience store on 79th Street.
“Why is this our normal?” Mitchell asked. “After the Highland Park shooting, the vice president went to Highland Park the next day. When is she coming to Parkway? Does a mother have to lose every child she has before something is done?”
While the scourge of the country’s gun violence is debated among activists, law enforcement agencies and politicians — with Gov. J.B. Pritzker to sign legislation after the Illinois House approved a measure Tuesday to ban military-style firearms — gun violence support groups are left reckoning with the aftermath of everyday shootings. Their work is not only financial, helping to pay for burials and moving costs, but also about delivering trauma-informed services, support group advocates say.
Now, a new pilot program is aiming to ease the trauma and financial burden experienced by gun violence survivors and their families across five Chicago communities. Mayor Lori Lightfoot, the Chicago Department of Public Health and the Community Safety Coordination Center launched the $275,000 Emergency Supplemental Victims’ Fund pilot program in December to help cover funeral expenses, relocation costs and other basic needs, such as rent, utilities, groceries and more.
Mitchell spoke to the Tribune about the program just days before her nephew was shot, but now the urgency for such a fund has especially hit home. Her nephew lived with his mother, three brothers and younger sister in their Parkway Gardens apartment, and his mother is terrified to stay there after the shooting, she said.
“His mother needs an emergency move like yesterday,” Mitchell said. “She also needs short-term disability with an option for an extension. It’s 13 years later and I still fight every day to get up and take care of my family. The city should relocate these mothers until they can get their lives back together.”
Stephaney Harris, director of trauma and victim services for the mayor’s office and Community Safety Coordination Center, said the city built the program off its existing victim services. The pilot program is part of the city’s $52 million investment in violence interventions, and the fund is available to those affected in East and West Garfield Park, Englewood, West Englewood and New City. Plans are to expand to more communities in the future.
“The most pressing needs really came to light,” Harris said. “We were trying to create a mechanism to mobilize funding as quickly as possible to families who are impacted by gun violence to mitigate or reduce the impacts of trauma.”
Immediately following a shooting, a victim or their loved one can apply for up to $1,000 to help with basic needs. This money may go toward wage loss, rent and utilities, groceries, uninsured medical expenses, mental health care, child care or other relevant expenses.
In the case of a fatality or debilitating injury, individuals can also receive up to $1,000 for temporary or permanent relocation costs. Families who lost a loved one to gun violence can receive up to $1,500 to support funeral or burial costs. Victims can receive up to $2,000 per shooting and the maximum amount of funding available for the family of someone fatally shot is $3,500.
So far, the city has received 47 applications and approved $48,000 for distribution to victims and families. Four survivor support advocacy groups are fielding the applications, The Institute for Nonviolence Chicago, Breakthrough Urban Ministries, Universal Family Connection and Centers for New Horizons.
When such funds can meet families’ most immediate needs, such as food or rent, it can help to alleviate the impacts of trauma, Harris said. She also emphasizes the importance of the support being community-based.
“These are community-based organizations with many who have lived experiences of being impacted by gun violence who are helping the community also impacted by gun violence,” Harris said. “Our office is supporting in a number of ways. But this is community serving community.”
The partner organizations walk people through the application process and help determine their eligibility. Once the advocate has filed the application, Harris’ office will determine how the funding will be distributed.
People can apply for financial assistance related to gun violence incidents that occurred on or after Oct. 1 until Friday’s deadline, which the city extended from the initial deadline at the end of December. After that date, victims and families will be able to apply for assistance from incidents that occurred in 2023.
While Mitchell is supportive of the initiative, she doesn’t think it goes far enough to help those reeling from gun violence. She started the Heal Your Heart Foundation, which supports grieving mothers who have lost their children to gun violence, after two Chicago police officers fired three shots into the back of Jackson, her son, killing him in the spring of 2010.
She said support from the city would have been helpful in her own case, recalling that she had to go back to work shortly after his death.
“I was not in my right state of mind,” Mitchell said last week. “I was wanting to end my life. You’re really like a zombie. You’re not even here. You’re trying to put one foot in front of another. It’s a hard thing to do.”
The anxiety and grief after the loss of her son also left her with new medical needs she didn’t have before.
“I’m on two high blood pressure meds because I was threatening a stroke,” Mitchell said. “I’ve never been on high blood pressure medications.”
These are the kinds of struggles she has seen other moms go through in the aftermath of losing a child, including members of her family. Mitchell lost her niece Beemon in February 2020 when Beemon returned from a date at the Shedd Aquarium. A trio of shooters, including a 15-year-old boy who was later charged in her slaying, blindly opened fire into a convenience store, killing Beemon and injuring four others.
In her family’s most recent tragedy, her nephew was discovered around 8 p.m. Monday in the 6300 block of South King Drive on the sidewalk with a gunshot wound to his head. He was taken to the University of Chicago Medical Center where he was pronounced dead, police said.
No one was yet in custody for the homicide and detectives were investigating, police said.
While Mitchell is glad to see the city providing some level of support, she is concerned that receiving the funding will be like a “lottery” and access to the funds will be limited compared with the need.
She is advocating for a proposal that would qualify Chicago mothers who lost their children to relocate to another city, as well as qualify them for short-term disability for a year. These are costs that the fund won’t be able to cover, she said.
“What is a thousand dollars going to do?” Mitchell said. “To pick up a whole household and move costs more than $1,000. And $1,500 is definitely not enough to bury — that’s cremation.”
Harris said her office is continuously receiving feedback from its partner organizations. The city is also gathering information to measure the impact of the pilot program, including the number of applicants, the amount of funding dispersed and how the funding will be used by the survivors.
“We would love nothing more than to be able to increase these amounts,” Harris said. “We do understand that amounts in this just covers part of an expense and some relief that’s needed. Absolutely, in our heart of hearts, we would love to look at how to expand that and see what’s possible for the future after this pilot period.”
The funding from the program is just the start of adequately addressing the impacts of gun violence in these communities, according to Carlos Colon, victim services supervisor of The Institute of Nonviolence Chicago. The organization is focused on finding long-term solutions in victim care and violence prevention.
“It’s a blessing that this emergency funding came,” Colon said. “But how do you sustain it? When the money runs out, it’s like people lose hope again. We have a couple of people that were victimized twice in one year, shot twice. So how do we deal with that? We’re just trying to put on a Band-Aid but we want the surgery so this violence gets stopped.”
That repeating cycle of violence couldn’t be clearer to Mitchell. Tears flooded her eyes as she stood across from Parkway Gardens on Tuesday.
“I hold all these people up,” she said, referring to her foundation, “but now I don’t have anybody to hold me up.”
Chicago Tribune’s Terrence Antonio James contributed.