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In the year of COVID-19, Boston homicides and shootings spiked. Why?

A memorial on Topliff Street for a 17-year-old, Alissa King, who was fatally shot in April.
A memorial on Topliff Street for a 17-year-old, Alissa King, who was fatally shot in April.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

Months after Felicity Coleman was gunned down in Dorchester while watching fireworks during the Fourth of July holiday weekend, parts of a small memorial near the scene of her Stonehurst Street slaying remain: a cluster of unlit candles just inside a yard, a purple “F” woven into a chain-link fence.

Barbara Rose, who was with Coleman when she was fatally shot, recalled how it unfolded: a man got into an argument with someone, then left the scene only to return. Eventually, gunfire rang out on the tightly-packed street studded with triple-deckers. Coleman wasn’t the target, said Rose.

“It was senseless,” the 53-year-old said.

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In a year of unrelenting death, it was not the neighborhood’s first instance of bloodshed in 2020; 17-year-old Alissa King was fatally shot on nearby Topliff Street in April, about a block away from the Coleman memorial. There are other murder scenes within a 10-minute walk: one on Bellevue Street, where Paul Richards was killed in May, another by Ronan Park, where Jason Brandao was fatally shot in late July.

This year, street violence has increased in Boston. Homicides in the city so far are up 54 percent from last year — at 54 for the year, up from 35 at this time in 2019. As of late November, there were 219 shooting incidents in the city, compared to 151 for the same time period last year. Total shooting victims have increased from 183 to 261. Likewise, gun-related arrests increased from 369 to 409.

For city authorities, advocates who work in violence prevention, and those who live and work in neighborhoods ravaged by street violence, the explanations for the spike are myriad.

For one, 2019 appears to be an outlier for Boston, with the city hitting a 20-year low for homicides last year. (From 2014 to 2019, the city averaged about 48 homicides a year.) Additionally, some observers suggest that the economy, decimated by the ongoing public health emergency, has more people feeling desperate. Yet others point to the pandemic’s gutting of youth programs and months without in-person learning at the city’s public schools, traditional bulwarks against violence that can keep youths busy and off the streets.

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“There is no one reason why the violence is up in the city of Boston this year, but we continue to work at it every single day,” Mayor Martin J. Walsh said at a recent news conference.

In addition to food, housing, and employment insecurities, Suffolk District Attorney Rachael Rollins said health care disparities and higher rates of infection and death in communities of color combine for a “recipe for disaster.” Rollins said she is deeply troubled by increases in street violence.

“Notably, many of the communities where violence is erupting within Suffolk County are home to the very people who have been keeping us all fed, clean, and safe through the height of the pandemic and continue to do so as we still battle against COVID-19: supermarket employees, sanitation workers, food service and food processing staff, hospital employees, and caregivers,” Rollins said last week.

Such workers, said Rollins, don’t have the luxury of tele-commuting and many don’t have paid sick leave or hazard pay.

“These essential, and often invisible, workers are barely provided a living wage,” Rollins said. “These epic societal failures make the violence in these communities even more explicable, traumatic, and devastating.”

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Boston police Commissioner William Gross, meanwhile, said his department “is working day and night to prevent and solve crime in our city, and our police officers are in our communities every day to provide pathways away from violence for those who are most at risk.”

Police Commissioner William Gross arrived on the scene as Boston police investigated a reported child shot at 21 Nazing Court near the intersection with Blue Hill Ave. in April.
Police Commissioner William Gross arrived on the scene as Boston police investigated a reported child shot at 21 Nazing Court near the intersection with Blue Hill Ave. in April.Barry Chin/Globe Staff/The Boston Globe

“Behind every act of violence is a broken family and a community filled with hurt,” Gross said.

Brother Donnell Singleton, a resource coordinator for SOAR Boston who has worked in violence prevention for 20 years, cited high youth unemployment and a growing homeless teenage population amid the public health emergency.

“If you’re homeless, you’ll do almost anything to keep a roof over your head, including being a triggerman or being a drug dealer,” Singleton said.

Singleton also spoke of older men being released from prison during the pandemic, as well as older men already living in the community, preying on “younger folks to do their bidding.” That, he said, is an ongoing problem.

Additionally, youth programming being decimated by COVID-19 has also had a knock-on effect, he said. Whereas in decades past, gangs in Boston were much more hierarchical, nowadays, “there are really no more hierarchies. It’s like everyone is a renegade.”

A  jogger passed by a makeshift memorial near the 100 block of Adams Street near Ronan Park in Dorchester in July.
A jogger passed by a makeshift memorial near the 100 block of Adams Street near Ronan Park in Dorchester in July. Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

“It’s a war zone in Boston right now,” he said. “There’s a different level of conflict going on in our town.”

The Rev. Eugene F. Rivers III, a Dorchester-based founder of the Boston TenPoint Coalition, a faith-based anti-violence organization, pointed to a recent incident during which police arrested three and confiscated six guns at a large gathering of about 30 people at a Wainwright Street park in mid-November as emblematic of the problems in the city’s streets.

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The novel coronavirus, said Rivers, has “created some new economies in the drug game.”

“There is extreme poverty that is impacting young people that has been under-documented,” he said.

No in-person learning in the city’s public schools, he said, has also played a factor.

“How many thousands of kids are on the street now?”' Rivers said. “You didn’t have that before.”'

“Being in school reduced violence objectively, now there’s no school to reduce violence,” Rivers said. “You have a few thousand idle, extremely poor kids. And the hopelessness is a factor.”

Rivers also thought Boston police’s ability to combat the street violence was hamstrung by what he called the politics of the moment, as both local and national conversations about police reform and structural racism continue. He thought the reform rhetoric has had a chilling effect on aggressive policing.

“The politics of the policing thing have hampered the city’s ability to in some cases do what they got to do with these knuckleheads,” said Rivers. “The Black clergy has to stand up and demand and say, ‘Look, sometimes it’s hammer time.’”

In a different Dorchester neighborhood last week, Lemuel “Snookie” Mills opened a convenience store front door that the owner says was recently cracked by a homeless person who had lashed out after repeatedly being caught trying to steal food. Mills, an 82-year-old retired probation officer who has lived on Bowdoin Avenue for more than 50 years, was there to buy lottery tickets, but ended up talking about desperation and how he feels it contributes to crime.

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“In a pandemic, people not working, people not feeding their family,” Mills said. “Guys who are selling drugs, they’re doing that to make money.”

Three blocks from that cracked glass door on Washington Street, Sarbryon Loving, a 39-year-old man, was fatally shot on Erie Street during the wee hours of a Sunday in late July.

“Everybody’s got a gun,” said Mills. “Even the kids got a gun. They don’t feel safe without a gun.”

Inside the same store, David Jones, 53, who has lived in the neighborhood since the 1970s, mentions hearing gunshots nearby when he went to pick up a steak-and-cheese sub the previous week at a shop on Blue Hill Avenue, across from Franklin Park, but he also talks about the pressures underpinning the bloodshed. Employment problems, he said, can lead to other problems. He said he feels unsafe in the neighborhood and rarely goes out.

“I don’t know, it’s just gotten bad the last six months,” said Jones. “No one is happy.”

Jeremiah Manion of Globe staff contributed to this report.


Danny McDonald can be reached at daniel.mcdonald@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @Danny__McDonald.