More than 30,000 Chicagoans have been shot in the last decade. And five of every six survive. 

But while much of the attention from the news media, law enforcement, city leaders, and the public is on homicides, there is another hidden epidemic: the trauma of surviving. 

Survivors face physical, psychological, and emotional trauma, but the road to recovery is often one with little to no help.

Cities dedicate resources to investigations and arrests, but this only addresses a sliver of the problem — especially since, in Chicago, the likelihood of an arrest is very low. 

What if, instead, cities focused on healing trauma and providing resources for the journey to physical recovery? WBEZ’s Reset and The Trace wanted to know: What do the people left in the wake of gun violence need? What does recovery look like?

We spoke with those whose lives have been affected by violence in Chicago, including a teacher whose student was taken away by gun violence, a trauma surgeon on the frontlines of physical recovery, and a violence prevention advocate, who tries to stop shootings before they happen. 

Here’s what they said was needed to help shooting survivors —  and their communities — recover. These interviews have been edited for length and clarity.

A portrait of Les Jenkins

Les Jenkins

How has your life been impacted by gun violence? 

I was impacted by being shot in both legs and my hip at 17-years-old. My first-born daughter was in my arms when it happened. The shooting was motivated by racism and gang violence. It was an initiation for a rival gang. It happened right in front of our corner store. 

It took nine months for me to start walking. I couldn’t complete school, and I didn’t want to complete life. I was angry. All I could think about was retaliation. Then I just buried it. 

What does recovery look like for you? 

It was hard. I had a lot of fear and self-pity. My belief was shattered; I was angry with God. They told me I wouldn’t walk again. But the emotional and physical support of my family brought me back. …They kept speaking good into me. 

I didn’t know then what I do now. There was no assistance like Nonviolence Chicago at that time. I dedicated myself to serving and helping other people recover because that wasn’t there when I was shot.

What resources do survivors need more of in Chicago? 

It is critical to meet people on the front lines, when people feel hopeless and helpless. It’s important to assist people with what they need based on who they are. It’s important to have a wrap-around process that includes home visits, support, crime victims compensation, etc. 

Each case is different – you might need to relocate someone, get them school assistance, medical devices, bandages, rent and groceries. Advocates like us need more access to victims while they are in the hospital. We know that faster access to victims allows them to accept services and actually get out of the violence entirely. If we could get a linkage agreement with the hospitals so they understand what we do and the importance of being with survivors at the bedside, it would make a real difference.  

Ideally, I wish we could set up a safe house where we can work with survivors of gun violence out of the neighborhoods where the violence occurred. If we could work with them around healing both mentally and physically, it would truly change lives. Gun violence doesn’t happen in a vacuum – we must address the racism, poverty, homelessness, school closings, and lack of resources in our community if we truly want to help survivors.

A portrait of Eddie Bocanegra

Eduardo Bocanegra

How has your life been impacted by gun violence? 

Growing up in Little Village, violence was everywhere and something that I witnessed regularly. I know firsthand how violence affects young people growing up surrounded by death, and I’ve seen the toll it takes on the people around me in my personal life and through my work. Since then, I’ve devoted my professional life to working to combat our gun violence epidemic.

What does recovery look like for you? 

I can’t stress enough how critical a strong support system has been to my recovery, and we try to intentionally provide that support for participants of READI Chicago. 

Survivors are often portrayed as irrational. In reality, many survivors are highly pragmatic and often seek precisely the things that would help to heal. 

A process of healing [is] about formulating a cohesive narrative about what really took place: “What happened? Why did this happen?” That’s the beginning of recovery. 

I could tell you as someone who’s visited a dozen families already because of the work: Sometimes families are receptive. But in many other cases, your loved ones are saying, “I want my son. You know, he was changing his life. He just got out of prison.” Or, “Why wasn’t there enough people helping them?” 

And that’s something that we also grapple with, just creating a space for them to just cross that and to understand it is the beginning of a healing process. 

Recovery for me means processing my trauma from violence and incarceration, and sharing my journey with others in the hope that my success will translate to their success, as well.

What resources do survivors need more of in Chicago? 

When I think about those who are in [READI], about 82% of those in Chicago have been victims of violence prior to coming to our program. 

So, what that tells me is: “What have we done to support individuals right from the moment they were born?” And it’s unfortunate that because of the ZIP code that many folks are born into or the parents that were born into — which they have no decision making on that process — that determines a lot of their outcomes. 

Survivors need more access to mental health supports and economic opportunity to heal and get back on their feet. Mental health supports in the neighborhoods we work in, which have faced decades of disinvestment, are so scarce and not available to the people who truly need them most. On top of that, barriers to work, housing,and education are so prevalent that it makes it extremely difficult for people to move forward with their lives.

A portrait of Natalie Manning

Natalie Manning

How has your life been impacted by gun violence? 

My oldest son was shot in 2018, on the Fourth of July weekend in Chicago.

When this actually happened, I kind of was silent about it. … If you weren’t a close family or friend, no one knew that had happened to my family. It has a major impact on my family, especially my daughter. …You would hear about [gun violence] on the news, you would see it on social media, but to actually have it happen to a family member, that had a difficult kind of impact. 

You also lost a student to gun violence when you were working at a charter school. How did that affect you, your school staff and the student body? 

That was very emotional for everyone. She was just a freshman at that time, [and] she was one of my favorite students. We used to laugh and joke around all the time. For students, for the staff, it was a difficult time. 

I would have a listening ear to hear what [students] have to say. And you got to keep an eye on them, let them know that it’s going to be OK. But it’s easier said than done. You just have to take one day at a time. That’s what I would always tell them. 

What does recovery look like for you? 

It can be stressful, and you have to take one day at a time.

Eight years ago, I founded This is Life with my youngest son. It’s a nonprofit that creates opportunities for young people to participate in the arts with the goal to deter violence. 

You know, it’s a process, and you always got to try to find ways to be creative, especially with youth …and try to find ways to allow them to express themselves. 

What resources do survivors need more of in Chicago? 

Survivors need more help with mental health resources, as well as more information about resources that are available to help them through the recovery process and how to be able to access them in a timely fashion.

A portrait of Tanya Zakrison

Tanya Zakrison

How has your life intersected with gun violence?

I came up to Chicago because of the opening of the new Level 1 trauma center at the University of Chicago, because it was a trauma desert here initially. But what was interesting about the trauma center …we’ve been recruited from different parts of the country to look at gun violence in terms of a patient in front of us that we have to treat urgently and heal them in the operating room and beyond, but also look at the structural causes of gun violence and understand why that happens. 

And there’s no other place in the United States than the South Side of Chicago where those structural issues are very prominent — structural violence, structural racism, the whole decades and centuries worth of history of marginalization and discrimination that basically lead to the direct violence that we see every day and every night. 

What kind of physical trauma do bullets inflict? 

There’s a lot of energy that makes the bullet move that’s transferred from the bullet to the local tissues. And it can cause cavitation, which just means like a little bomb blast on the inside of the body in addition to the direct trauma injury that the bullet will cause to the tissues by touching it directly. So the damage is wildly destructive. 

What resources do survivors need more of in Chicago? 

What we try to do at the University of Chicago …is to connect our survivors of gun violence to programs that allow them to access educational opportunities to help them access cognitive behavioral therapy, mental health support, which is so important. 

So many of our young people run the risk of developing post-traumatic stress disorder after being shot. And in young men in particular, that manifests aggression. And so often people look at the young men and say, “Oh, that’s that bad kid who got shot. And look, he’s always so angry and stuff.” And that’s actually psychiatric signs and symptoms that he’s demonstrating, saying he needs help.

But this issue of gun violence affecting our Black and brown community, this is a fundamental issue of human rights and the failure of our government to protect human rights on individual and collective and community levels. 

I think really our interventions also need to focus at the government levels. And that’s the city level, at the state level, at the national level, to say, “Hey, why is this pattern happening over and over again?”