He can tell you who was shot here.
Driving along W. Broadway in north Minneapolis, Farji Shaheer talks about a woman who took a bullet through her Dodge Durango in this very spot. He tells the story of a 10-year-old who was shot in the back seat of his mother's car. He speaks of the teenager who was about to leave for college when rivals shot up his house.
Shaheer, 41, is on his way to visit yet another man recovering from gunshots at North Memorial Health Hospital in Robbinsdale. In a few hours he will go home to his great-nephew, who survived a shooting of his own. All the while, he fields calls from others shattered by gunfire.
Shaheer stands on the front lines of a dramatic surge in shootings. More than 500 people were shot in Minneapolis in 2020, the highest number in a decade and a half.
It is still dark most mornings when Shaheer drives to HCMC in downtown Minneapolis and goes to his office at Next Step, a five-year-old program that offers support to young-adult victims of violence and their families. His mission is to lower the chances they are shot again and help them heal.
As Minneapolis triples funding for the city's Office of Violence Prevention to support teams of outreach workers in the streets, Next Step takes a different approach: intervening after a shooting happens.
Next Step staffers meet with survivors in their hospital rooms, offering support during recovery and the difficult months and years when they go back into the world.
"You're dealing with anger," says Shaheer, a senior violence intervention specialist and one of Next Step's founders. "You're dealing with this wide range of emotions. And it is extremely important to follow up with these individuals after a violent event just to make sure they don't put themselves in a similar situation and that they don't hurt anyone else."
His involvement with clients can go on for years as he encourages them to lead lives of discipline and integrity so they are less likely to get drawn into a cycle of harm.
Stopping the dominoes
Shaheer starts making phone calls from his office early in the day, catching clients as they wake up. One of the first to answer is a sluggish-sounding 19-year-old who was shot a year ago. His job isn't giving him enough hours, he tells Shaheer: "Everything is just going sideways."
Shaheer encourages him to go back to school and build his skills while he pursues better opportunities. "It's your call," he says. "Nobody can jump in your body and make you do it."
Shaheer has received alerts overnight about a teenager going to HCMC after being shot four times in south Minneapolis. Other Next Step staffers will tend to him when he's ready to talk. For now, Shaheer knows that he's made it through his first surgery and is stable.
This January morning, he is anxious about Lamar Smith, a 21-year-old man shot in the face a few days after Thanksgiving. Shaheer didn't pick up his call the day before — he was off — and he worries that Smith will lose faith in him.
"I owe you a thousand pardons," Shaheer tells him over the phone before arranging for him to come to his office so he can help his family secure stable housing.
Smith had grown so used to hearing gunshots that at first he didn't know he was hit before falling to the pavement in front of Dollar General on W. Broadway. Shaheer introduced himself at North Memorial to Smith, who began looking up to him as a big brother. No one was arrested in the shooting, and Shaheer helped Smith quell his urge to retaliate.
"I was angry. ... Farji let me know that revenge isn't going to do anything but cause more revenge," Smith says. "It's a domino effect. Let the system take its course."
His physical recovery has been quick, and today Smith doesn't look like he's been shot. But he still hears gunshots when he goes to bed and he hasn't gotten a full night's sleep since the shooting. The father of two is always on edge, paranoid and angry. That's typical among the gunshot victims Shaheer works with, and when Smith gets too heated Shaheer tells him to calm down.
"You've got to do what's right for the kids," he tells Smith.
Shaheer bears a heavy load, trying to contain the spool of fear, pain and upheaval that unfolds with each bullet. But he approaches his job matter of factly. The wall across from his desk is adorned with pictures of recent gunshot victims, many of them young Black men, and programs for their memorial services. He knows he could have been one of them.
'The cards we were dealt'
Shaheer, a father of five, grew up in Chicago in the 1980s and '90s and spent part of his childhood in the Robert Taylor Homes project. He was attuned to danger early on, when something as simple as riding the bus through the wrong neighborhood could provoke gunfire. By middle school he was carrying a gun to defend himself.
"You had to be ready for war," he recalls.
Shaheer's family moved to the Twin Cities in 1996, when he was 16. His siblings carried the scars of bullet wounds from Chicago's violence. Shaheer was more fortunate, but decades later the threat of violence can still be part of his workday.
In 2017, he was driving in south Minneapolis with a Next Step participant when some guys started running toward his car. He heard two gunshots in his direction. "I've been shot at multiple times," he says. "By the grace of God, I've never caught a slug."
He keeps in touch with many of the people he met in the early years of the program, but newer clients dominate his time as shootings have risen in the wake of the police killing of George Floyd.
Among the victims from last summer's violence is his 18-year-old great-nephew, who participates in the program with another case worker.
As Smith prepares to leave his office, Shaheer welcomes Octeria Poindexter. The North Side mother of five lost two of her teenage sons, Da'Vontae and Diontae Wallace, in separate shootings last year.
Next Step is trying to connect the surviving family members with counseling, including Poindexter's 4-year-old daughter. The child was playing outside in June when she saw her brother dying on the ground after getting shot.
The family doesn't feel safe at home, and Shaheer is helping them relocate. He goes through the paperwork with Poindexter that will enable them to move, then recommends a support group for women affected by gun violence.
"It's the best thing to talk to someone who's been through what you've been through," Shaheer says to her. "It's none of our fault that we had to go through this. It's just the cards we were dealt."
As shootings have mounted, Shaheer has seen more victims who don't appear to have been targeted. People like 26-year-old Khadijah Norman, a mother of three who was driving down W. Broadway to pick up Happy Meals for the kids when she heard a pop and felt a surge of pain in her side.
"Mommy, you just got shot!" her 4-year-old son said from the back seat.
The bullet entered through the car door, but three months later Norman still doesn't know who shot her or why. The bullet is still lodged in her side; asked how it feels, she takes a piece of paper off Shaheer's desk and rips it.
Norman now takes anxiety medication and thinks she has post-traumatic stress disorder. She cannot play with her children the way she used to; sometimes it feels like a hot comb is searing her skin.
Shaheer works with Norman to apply for Social Security disability benefits. She talks about how she had a mental breakdown the first time she drove down Broadway after the shooting, how she shook and sobbed. It's a hard street to avoid — her pain management appointments are in the shopping center across from where she got shot.
Shaheer bids goodbye to Norman and goes to pick up Amir Edwards, who uses a wheelchair after being shot in a family dispute last year. They head to North Memorial to see another young man paralyzed from a December shooting. Shaheer knows it will mean more for the patient to hear from a peer who has been paralyzed, too. He hopes it will also be meaningful to Edwards.
"This isn't hard," Edwards says as he rolls his wheelchair across the hospital parking lot. "It's easy work!" replies Shaheer.
He wants to keep the chain of support going, one person at a time — to encourage his charges to overcome their anger and take their time in recovering, to do everything he can so this is the last violence they know.