Young and under the gun: Trials of growing up on Miami-Dade’s mean streets

Wilniyah Jenkins, 13, seating, hangs out with her cousin Connie, 11, outside a basketball court down the street from Charles R. Drew Middle School on Friday, March 4, in Liberty City. They were there to watch Wilniyah’s brother, William Jenkins, 15, play basketball with friends.
Wilniyah Jenkins, 13, seating, hangs out with her cousin Connie, 11, outside a basketball court down the street from Charles R. Drew Middle School on Friday, March 4, in Liberty City. They were there to watch Wilniyah’s brother, William Jenkins, 15, play basketball with friends.

Inner city kids can’t escape it.

Days after the crossfire death of young King Carter in Northwest Miami-Dade sparked marches and outrage, two 15-year-olds debated how police and emergency crews had handled another recent random killing.

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This one, a man shot while riding his bike near a corner store, went largely unnoticed outside their own Liberty City neighborhood. But it stuck in the mind of Anthony Sutton, who wondered why police didn’t cover the shirtless corpse. His friend Kiandra Carter insisted officers had tried but strong winds blew off the tarp.

The two Northwestern Senior students went back and forth while sitting in a brightly painted community center in their public housing complex, matter-of-factly debating details almost like it was a disputed foul call at a Heat game.

“The ambulance didn’t do nothing for him,” Sutton said. “They just let him die.”

“The man was already dead,” Carter responded.

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On the poorest and grittiest streets from Northwest Miami through Overtown and down to Florida City, countless children and parents do what they can to avoid the violence. Kids take roundabout routes home from school and avoid eye contact with the gangbangers while their parents order them to stay out of the parks where gunshots ring out and to play indoors.

But violence happens, erupting almost as regularly as thunderstorms — forcing even the youngest children to deal with its constant specter.

“I’m afraid of a big man coming with a gun and shooting,” said Maurice Chase, 10, who was with his mother picking up his older sister from Carol City Middle on a recent afternoon. “A lot of people are dying, even when they are innocent.”

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The death of King Carter, a 6-year-old killed by a stray bullet in a Saturday afternoon shootout between teens feuding over a Facebook post, was simply the latest and most heart-wrenching in a string of youth shootings in Miami-Dade. Ten people under the age of 20 have been killed in Miami-Dade so far this year — a rate of about one young person murdered every week.

With each death, there are many more children and families who live with the scars as they lose friends, relatives and neighbors.

“It’s getting too common,” said Tylor Dawson, 18, who lives in Miami Gardens. “We shouldn’t get used to hearing that.”

Jesus Fuste walked through the buildings in his Liberty City neighborhood. The 17-year-old wore a button-down shirt and tie, having just come back from his new job as a recruiter. He gestured over his shoulder to a group of men huddled in the twilight.

“You really don’t see people like me, teens like me, coming home from work,” he said. “You see people like this — gambling or whatever.”

He pointed to bullet holes pocking one building, and another and another. He looked toward the spot where a close friend was gunned down. Fuste said he was just yards away at the time.

“I heard, ‘boom, boom, boom.’ Like a rocket launcher. Like it’s World War III,” he remembered. “It’s been crazy at times in these projects, but what can you do?”

In these communities, Facebook isn’t just a place to post selfies and chat with friends — it’s also where deadly fights are picked, weapons are flashed and news of the latest murder is shared.

“These kids are posting rifles on Facebook,” said James Mungin II, 26, who works with young people at the African Heritage Cultural Arts Center. “You’re like, ‘How in the world — at 15, 16 [years old] — you got your hands on that?’ 

Beefs — as police believe happened in the King Carter shootout — can start with a question posted to someone’s social media page: “Where you from? Who you with?” is enough to set off a gunfight.

“You don’t even have to know the person,” said Akarie Folkes, 17. “People try to get their reputation up, most of the time by fighting and gun violence.”

Like many kids growing up in his Liberty City neighborhood, Folkes can name multiple friends he has lost either to guns or jail.

“People I grew up with in elementary school are gone and dead,” he said. “They haven’t lived their lives. They were only teenagers.”

To avoid trouble, many kids say they try to keep to themselves.

“I feel like, right now, I can’t trust nobody at all,” Kiandra Carter said. “You don’t know what they’re doing, so you can be walking with them and get shot at.”

Researchers, unsurprisingly, say that growing up around violence can be damaging to the development of children. Young brains simply aren’t wired to manage nonstop stress, and constant exposure to abuse, neglect or an unsafe environment can have consequences both immediate and long-term.

“It’s a pattern of chronic stress that really doesn’t allow kids to have what passes as a childhood. You can’t go outside. You can’t trust anyone,” said Philip Harvey, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine. “It gets worse over time, instead of better because you learn a lot of your skills for interacting with other people over childhood.”

The result: trouble concentrating at school, defiant behavior, depression. Even PTSD and higher rates of liver disease have been linked to a child’s exposure to violence. It’s compounded if there is no support system of adults to help kids navigate the trauma. And it all can help fuel a cycle of violence.

“There is a constant process of development, and the more time you spend stressed and traumatized, and even experiences of neglect, have adverse brain consequences,” Harvey said.

On Friday, Tyquarn Moss Jr., who says he and dozens of other teens find refuge at a community space run by the Miami Children’s Initiative, was seen at the basketball court with William Jenkins, 15, while his sister, Wilniyah Jenkins, 13, and their cousin Connie, 11, watched their game from the fence.

At the community space, the nonprofit provides tutoring and after-school programs — and on a recent night, pizza — to kids living in the blocks around Charles R. Drew K-8 Center.

“It’s getting kind of critical outside,” said Tyquarn, 15. “MCI has been helping us be safe and helping us be active.”

For Renida O’Field, the mother of 10-year-old Maurice Chase, raising five children in Carol City is challenging. In February, a shooting between teens that police say was gang-related left Carol City High sprayed with bullets. No one at the school was hurt.

But the gunfire prompted O’Field to implement rules that she never would have imagined: Playing only happens in the backyard, and never after dark. No one goes anywhere alone, and she’s always at school early to pick up the kids — ages 8 to 18 — so they don’t have time to find trouble.

“I don’t leave them for a second,” she said. “There’s so much violence going on. I tell them to watch the news and educate themselves because I don’t want them to get hurt.”

O’Field is a single mother and works nights. She uses her hour-long break to run home, cook dinner and make sure the kids are in bed by 9:30 p.m. Her community, like many in the inner city, needs more after-school programs and more jobs for young teens, but she believes making the streets safer begins at home.

“Having to work is not an excuse. Parents need to be more involved,” she said.

Michelle McNealy said the only way to keep her children safe — an 11-year-old daughter and 13-year-old son — is to stay vigilant and rely on faith. Where she lives in Miami Gardens, there are too many opportunities for them to go down the wrong path, she says.

So McNealy searches backpacks for wads of money or weapons, and keeps an eye out for pricey items her children might have, but that she knows she didn’t buy. Still, whenever her kids leave the house, she worries — especially for her son.

“All you can do is pray and hope he comes home safe,” McNealy said. “It’s a constant struggle.”

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