Every other week, the mothers of Camden meet at Virtua hospital, where they come to talk about the dead. They cluster around a table, where the windows behind them frame an American flag flying in front of the towering oxidized copper spires of a historic Catholic church.
Each one raised children in the city; each one lost children to the city.
"I don't think I can really ever 'get over' losing my son," says one of the women. "They told me to go to counseling, but those psychiatrists haven't gone what I've gone through."
Cheri Burks started the support group, United Mothers Stand, after her son was shot and killed on Mother's Day last year. He was 24 years old.
“Nobody here has money,” Christina “Goosie” Carstarphen said. “Nobody has a bank account, nobody has homes, nobody has a business.”
Carstarphen saw her son, Robert, lying in an alley after he was shot and killed in 2012.
“For him to be gunned down like he was, in an alleyway, like a dog, that wasn’t right,” she said. “I couldn’t even cry, I was so angry. It was just like, something just ripped out of my body, like a part of me just went.”
After her son’s death, she installed blackout blinds throughout her apartment. She wanted to grieve in the dark.
“I lost my job and everything when my son died,” Carstarphen said. I didn’t want to leave the house. I shut myself down.”
Camden is a community that has been wrecked by gun violence. In 2012, the small city — only nine square miles with a population of 77,000 — had a murder rate that was 17 times higher than the national murder rate. Since then, the number of murders has fallen, down from 65 in 2012 to 58 in 2013 and 19 so far in 2014, according to statistics from the Camden County Police Department.
Despite the falling homicide rate, the problems plaguing Camden and spurring violent crime are numerous. Police Chief Scott Thomson calls the city “the perfect storm of social inequities.” Its streets are deteriorating. There are no supermarkets, and restaurants are hard to find. It is one of the poorest cities in the United States with a per capita income of around $13,000, and there are few job opportunities.
One factor contributing to the killings is the proliferation of illegal firearms. About eight out of 10 guns the police confiscate are from out of state, Thomson said, coming from Pennsylvania and Maryland, both of which have more relaxed gun laws than New Jersey. Frequently, they end up in the hands of Camden’s youth.
Former Camden County Prosecutor Diane Marano said young men in Camden carry guns for protection after they start working on the streets. Marano, who wrote a doctoral thesis on juvenile gun acquisition, interviewed many jailed youth from south New Jersey. In an environment of acute economic deprivation, a gun was "a key to anything you want to do," one teen told her.
Thomson says that with so many guns accessible, they’re commonly used to resolve street-corner disputes.
Camden County Police — successors to the Camden Police Department, which was disbanded in 2012 after the city ran out of money to pay for its own force — has taken on a more prominent role in the community since its was formed in 2013, increasing foot patrols and installing additional surveillance cameras. Thomson said the heightened police presence seems to be helping, with murders down by 35 percent so far this year.
Nevertheless, many Camden residents say they do not feel any safer. People are still reluctant to venture far beyond their “'hoods” -- there’s still a feeling that safety is only possible if you stay within a stone’s throw of your own house.
Thomson concedes that the police will never be able to solve every problem the city is facing.
“We got a gun and we got a pair of handcuffs,” he said. “The pistol and the bracelets aren’t going to fix the problems of our city, and we try to use those as tools of last resort.”
The first line of defense is the community.
Hamzah Hamid is a fixture on Haddon Avenue. Shouts of “Assalamu Alaikum” typical of this heavily Muslim community greet him. He’s a religious man; a prayer bump on his forehead from his daily devotions proves the intensity with which he practices his faith. He feels it’s his destiny to stay in Camden, to keep kids from going down the same path he did: Hamid served three years in prison for selling drugs.
Hamid is one of the co-founders of Rising Leaders, an outreach group trying to create positive opportunities for at-risk youth. He talks to kids in Camden about everything from job readiness, budgeting, and healthy eating. He wants them to have goals, to plan for a future many have trouble imagining.
"We're just trying to show these young bulls that they can do something else with their lives besides dealing drugs and gang-banging," Hamid said.
He says the young people he works with turn to crime because they’re frustrated and alone. They have no place to go, and no positive role models. Part of Hamid’s work is simple: Give the kids something to do besides run the streets. On the bottom floor of his house, Hamid offers drop-in karate courses and lets neighborhood kids play videogames.
“If there were two or three more people like Hamid in Camden,” said Dexter Hart, Hamid’s father-in-law, “the city would be a lot better off.”
A few blocks north of Rising Leaders' makeshift headquarters, a Jesuit priest is fighting the same battle. The Rev. Jeff Putthoff, is the founder and executive director of HopeWorks N' Camden, a group that focuses on helping youths who come from unstable housing situations. The program offers temporary housing and helps young men and women get jobs and GED certificates.
The cornerstone of the program, however, focuses on the youths’ pasts. HopeWorks provides counseling, employing a form of treatment called trauma-informed care that looks at the impact trauma has had on the lives of youths in the program.
“The people living in Camden, especially the youths, have been exposed to so much stress in their lives due to the poverty they've grown up in and the violence all around them,” Putthoff said. “This hurts them when they try to get and hold a job.”
Puthoff says that many young people turn to drugs to alleviate the distress caused by trauma.
"I see a future of healing, but a future that requires a lot of work," he said. “Healing takes work, healing is sweaty.”
“Hope is sweaty.”
A few years ago, Pyne Poynt Park in North Camden was a notorious open-air drug market, littered with needles. But in 2011, Bryan Morton founded the North Camden Little League, remaking the park as one of the only places offering recreational activities to the city’s youth. Now, he says, summer is the best season in Camden.
“Everybody is out, everybody is connected,” Morton said. “Nobody wants to leave the park, nobody wants to go home, everybody wants another at bat.”
He says he founded the baseball league to give fathers the chance to be fathers, mothers a time to relax, kids the opportunity to be kids and to let everyone forget for a moment that they live in the most-dangerous city in America.
He loves the view from the baseball field.
“The sun’s setting, the back channel of the Delaware, light breeze blowing through the trees, kids and coaches. Parents looking on. That’s all-American,” Morton said.
“This is reminding us of our place in this society, and it’s reminding the society that we are here.”
And that they want their children to live.
Erin Patrick O’Connor, Jon LaFlamme, Claudia Balthazar and Jackie DelPilar contributed to this report. O’Connor is an Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation News21 Fellow; LaFlamme is a News21 Weil Fellow and DelPilar is The John and Patty Williams Fellowship Fellow.