It only takes Tajaé Redden, 13, about a minute to walk to her home in north St Louis from the intersection where her school bus drops her off, but when she’s alone, the walk puts her on edge. She makes sure to check the passengers of every car that drives by to make sure no one will put her in danger. In her family’s area of St Louis, people sometimes turn to guns when they’re having a bad day.
“It doesn’t take that long for somebody to just pull out a gun and start shooting for no apparent reason,” Tajaé said. “It’s just the environment that we live in.”
The city has had the highest murder rate of any US city with over 100,000 since 2014, and this summer alone 13 children were killed with bullets. The safety of being at a home or around family is no guarantee.
Jurnee Thompson, eight, was killed in a parking lot during a Friday night football jamboree, her siblings and cousins standing around her. Kennedi Powell, three, was shot when she was outside playing with friends from the neighborhood. Eddie Hill, 10, was killed when outside on his front porch with his family on a Friday night.
It’s not hard to get a gun in St Louis – Missouri has some of the most relaxed gun laws in the country; it is an open-carry state that doesn’t require background checks or a permit to have a gun.
Because St Louis is heavily divided by race and class, some kids living in the city are safer than others. In some neighborhoods, housing prices are higher and the number of murders is significantly lower. But children don’t get a choice of what neighborhood they are born into or where their family settles.
Instead, they have to adapt.
Chante Bass, top right, hangs out on her front porch with her family in St Louis. The family lives in north St Louis, which has long been plagued by gun violence. Photograph: Whitney Curtis/The Guardian
‘You never know what somebody’s thinking’
There are things that make Tajaé more anxious when she is in the neighborhood.
If there are a lot of people on the sidewalk or cars driving by, Tajaé becomes uneasy. Gun violence can happen at any time to anyone, including young children who end up in the crossfire.
Chante Bass, Tajaé’s mother, stands at her bus stop on most school days, every morning and afternoon when she gets the chance. Her goal is simple: make sure kids getting on and off the bus are safe. She doesn’t leave until the last child has gone home.
Chante Bass talks her son, Taron Henton, seven, and daughter, Tajaé Redden, 13, as they play outside their home in St Louis. Photograph: Whitney Curtis/The Guardian
Bass is the lead coordinator for Neighborhood Net, a program that has dozens of volunteers stand at bus stops throughout the city to ensure kids get to and from home safely every day. The program, run by the not-for-profit Better Family Life, was created in response to the uptick of children who became victims of gun violence over the summer.
“When adults are around, it deters people’s actions – what they may have been thinking that is ill towards kids,” Bass said. Even though Bass lives a quick walk down the block from the school bus stop, it gives her peace of mind knowing that she can keep her family safe on their journeys to and from school.
Damontez Sharp, nine, plays football in an empty lot between his grandmother’s and neighbor’s house in St Louis. Photograph: Whitney Curtis/The Guardian
‘Sometimes it’s not safe to go outside’
Tajaé is well-versed in the rules of playing outside. Games of tag around the house are safe as long as Bass is outside with them or in specific spots in the house. She can go to the backyard if her mom is in her bedroom upstairs. If her mom is on the first floor of the house, she can go on either side of the house. Security cameras are installed in the back and front of the house, but Bass says they can only capture so much.
Bass said she tries to be home as much as possible so her family can play outside. A park with a playground, a basketball court and a baseball diamond is a one-minute drive from the Bass home, but many people with drug addictions and sex workers are in the park. Bass prefers to take her kids to a park that is a 20-minute drive away but is bigger and safer.
St Louis is a lot different from Houston, where Tajaé had lived since she was six years old, up until her family moved back to St Louis in 2017. She remembers a time when she could play outside with her friends, without adult supervision, and feel safe.
Tajaé recounts hearing gunshots fired at Easter this year. A woman driving by was shooting into the air, but Bass didn’t know where the gunshots were coming from, so she ushered them inside the house and told them to get on the floor.
“That just scared me because in Texas, we didn’t have to go in the house. We didn’t have to worry about getting in the house and getting on the floor because someone is shooting,” Tajaé said.
Tajaé Redden, 13, plays with her nephews Damontez Sharp, nine, and Lamarco Sharp Jr, 10 months, at their home in St Louis. Photograph: Whitney Curtis/The Guardian
‘They laugh about it, but it’s not funny’
Sometimes at school, jokes get made about guns that can be unnerving, Tajaé says, and some of her classmates seem less shocked by how prevalent they are in the area.
“They laugh about it, but it’s not funny,” Tajaé said about the jokes.
She said on one afternoon bus ride home from school, some classmates had been fighting on the bus and as it arrived at one of the stops she saw an adult flash a gun, she thought as some kind of warning before returning to their own vehicle. The bus driver at the time said they had not seen a gun, she said, and her schoolmates on the bus acted like everything was normal. “I just moved here, I didn’t know how they went, so they were all fine about it,” Tajaé said. “They wouldn’t let me call my mom, so I started crying. They were like, ‘You a crybaby.’ I was like, ‘How am I crybaby when I’m scared for my life?’”
Her nephew, Damontez, nine, and younger brother, Taron, seven, were on the bus with her.
“I didn’t know if I was going to die, and I don’t want to die. I was panicking, I was just shaking. I didn’t want to see my nephew and my brother dead,” Tajaé said.
A school bus passes through a neighborhood in south St Louis, a block from where three-year-old Kennedi Powell was killed in a drive-by shooting in June. Photograph: Whitney Curtis/The Guardian
‘More toxic than lead in the water’
As an outreach worker with Better Family Life, Adrian Martin goes to St Louis’s most crime-ridden neighborhoods and tries to connect families, especially young men, with social services and programs.
Martin described an afternoon when he went to a fast-food restaurant in a wealthier St Louis suburb. He saw a group of four white kids in their early teens together, looking like they were having a good time.
“They’re just laughing, they’re not looking over their shoulder,” Martin said. The image made him reflect on the young kids that he encounters through his work. “Their life is going to be so different from any boy I ever come in contact with because they don’t have to worry about getting shot.
“They don’t have to worry about somebody robbing them. They don’t have to come outside and have to look around, making sure they’re wearing the right color and aren’t saying the wrong word, not going on the wrong block. They don’t have any of that pressure on their mind.”
The trauma of living in a stressful environment can take a serious toll on children’s mental health. Toxic stress can damage a child’s developing brain, ultimately affecting a child’s ability to reason, regulate emotions and feel empathy. The stunt in development can actually be worse than the effect of having lead in drinking water.
“It’s probably more toxic than lead in the water,” said Joan Luby, a professor of child psychiatry at Washington University in St Louis.
While recent research points to all the ways that stress negatively molds a child’s brain, it also shows that there are ways to prevent any and all damage, even in a stressful environment. If a child receives support through a caregiver that is attentive and affectionate, the effects of stress can be reversed.
But addressing the foundations of the toxic environment cannot be overstepped. Living in a dangerous environment puts a lot of stress on caregivers – a stress that is unsustainable without proper support. “You wouldn’t set up a daycare in the middle of a war zone,” Luby said.
Chante Bass, center, tells her children and grandchildren to go inside for the night at their home in St Louis. Photograph: Whitney Curtis/The Guardian
‘Mama, when we goin’ back to Houston?’
During a car ride to his football practice, Damontez recently asked Bass when they’re going back to Houston. “I’m like, man, they’re over this” situation living in this neighborhood, “we haven’t even been home for a year and a half”, Bass said.
For many families in north St Louis, dealing with the risks posed by the neighborhood is worth having a solid roof overhead.
“If I had to choose something, this wouldn’t be it. I consider all the time moving,” Bass said. “But the size of the house gives us what we need, and we own this house, so we don’t have to pay anything.”
Bass is also closer to her family, including her other children and grandchildren, something Tajaé appreciates as well since Texas was a 12-hour drive away. “I’m closer to my family because all my family lives here. I get to see my family more often,” Tajaé said.
Bass makes it a point to validate her children’s value, teaching them that they don’t have to be a product of their environment.
“Is it safe for my children? No, and they don’t get to be kids, and that’s not fair,” Bass said. But “my kids know that their environment doesn’t dictate who they become”.