May 21, 2018

St. Louis streets torn by economic ruin and violence

Kendell McCline father’s murder would be a precursor to a life filled with gun violence.

McCline said his father, Ephriam Todd, died from an ice-pick stabbing when McCline was 12.

The most recent murder McCline witnessed a couple years ago happened right in front of him inside a drug house. McCline said the scene made him rethink his life.

“It’s sad to say I had to witness such a murder to get my life together,” McCline said. “I saw blood pouring out. At 46, I have been around all types of shootings. Growing up in the projects, you see all kinds of gun violence.”

On Sept. 5, 1983 McCline’s father was murdered in front of their home during a Labor Day family barbecue. McCline vividly recounted the holiday celebration that ended in murder.

“I had just pulled a mattress out to make a pallet in front of the television,” McCline said. “Monday Night Football just came on. My mom came running inside the apartment yelling, ‘Call the police! Call the police! Ephriam’s been stabbed!’”

McCline grew up in the Blumeyer housing projects. Blumeyer was a low-income housing complex built in 1967 about half a mile from the Fox Theater. In 1967 there were 217 murders in St.Louis with a population of 660 thousand according to a St. Louis University online source.

There were 205 murders in St. Louis last year with 315 thousand residents. There have been 54 murders in St. Louis  as of May 2, 2018. Of those murders, 49 were committed by firearms.

Everytown for Gun Safety is a data-driven research company that works with agencies and organizations to combat gun violence. Gun homicide rates are 400 times greater in impoverished inner-city communities than those in surrounding higher-income communities, according to Everytown for Gun Safety.

McCline said drug dealing and gun violence is a part of the neighborhood. He said the guns carried on the streets today are much bigger than they used to be and are easier to get.

McCline sits inside of a recovery center meeting room.
Photo by Ryan Gines

“Ain’t [any] more .38s and .32s, or .22s out there,” McCline said. “That game is over with. It’s automatic weapons like AR-15’s. Getting a gun is as easy as getting drugs or liquor.”

Criminologist Richard Rosenfeld is a University of Missouri – St. Louis professor who studies crime trends. Rosenfeld said poverty and gun violence have a strong connection.

“In cities with high rates of poverty, you will find people who do not have legitimate sources for income, so robbery and theft are often committed,” Rosenfeld said. “Those crimes are often violent, and it’s a risky business.”

Todd’s murder was the only murder McCline said he knew of where the murderer was caught and sent to prison. James Noel, was charged and convicted of capital murder and received a life sentence. He would not be eligible for parole for 50 years.

Out of the 54 murders to date this year in St. Louis, 38 of the them are still open.

Impoverished conditions

McCline’s mother provided the necessary things in life but he said his impoverished living conditions made him want to make fast money.

“My mom couldn’t afford all the worldly things you saw on the street,” McCline said. “My dad did work before he was murdered but not for a big corporation or anything. My mom received food stamps and went on to support us with his social security.”

Rosenfeld said most of the violence occurs in areas of the inner-city neighborhoods where people flee because of lack of jobs.

“Levels of economic deprivation, racial disadvantage and racial inequality are important causes for higher violent crime rates,” Rosenfeld said. “Drugs and enormous racial segregation with very little economic growth are the reasons for gun violence in our city.”

After his father’s murder, McCline started dealing drugs at age 14. McCline said instant cash in the poverty-stricken neighborhood was too beneficial to pass up. He said impoverished neighborhoods do not offer many opportunities for children living there.

“When your neighborhood is flooded with poverty, liquor stores, vacant buildings, prostitution, drive-by shootings and drugs, it is pretty gut-wrenching,” McCline said. “Us kids stood little chance for success. Many of the kids I knew, their parents were on drugs.”

Rosenfeld said the problem of violent crime is socio-economic, where the only way to curb the gun violence is for the city to grow. He said St. Louis is an older manufacture-based economy.

“When violent crime goes up, people with economic means move out, leaving behind more poverty situations and less resources,” Rosenfeld said. “Crime riddled cities need to attract people into the city. The growth isn’t going to come from within itself.”

Rosenfeld said a city’s growth rate is not just seen in numbers, but also in the day-to-day activities taking place in the city. Rosenfeld said construction cranes are a good signal of a cities growth.

“You don’t see too many cranes in our city,” Rosenfeld said. “You see them all over in Kansas City.” Rosenfeld said.

“Until St. Louis grows like other cities, we are going to have a crime problem,” Rosenfeld said. “That’s it in a nutshell.”

18 months ago, McCline got off the streets and into a sober-living transitional house. He said he has been sober ever since and the farthest he walks the street now is to Walgreens and back.

Criminal rehabilitation

Dawn Smith is the manager of McCline’s sober-living residence. She said criminal rehabilitation is an ongoing process. Her clients have a good success rate provided they continually work a 12-step program.

“Less than five percent leave the house over criminal behavior,” Smith said. “In the five years I have been here, we had zero clients catch a new case or violate probation and parole while living here.”

A criminal’s recidivism rate refers to the tendency of that person to commit another offense. The recidivism rate for men returning to the streets due to substance use is 30 to 40 percent. However, 10 to 15 percent of them  come back, Smith said.

“Those that come back have a much higher success rate of staying sober,” Smith said. “Success is not determined by length of stay but accomplishments of individual treatment plans.”

Smith said 60 percent of clients accomplish their goals and progress through life.

McCline said he gave up on the life of violence, guns and drugs. Now he said he lives a life of peace and freedom. He now enjoys his family and just wants to live a simple life.

McCline currently works at a treatment center and mentors young troubled kids. He said he is upfront with them when he talks about the street life.

“Anything you try to master, you become a slave to,” McCline said.

Read more stories about St. Louis and it’s efforts to curb gun violence and crime at the Gun Violence Project website.

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