Visions of mourning mothers still haunt Steve Floyd. It’s been more than a decade since he served as an advocate for homicide victims, but memories of anguished goodbyes remain engraved in his mind.
Floyd is a man of many seasons. In addition to being an advocate for victims of homicide, people may know him as a spiritual advisor, a gang and youth outreach worker, a basketball coach or an accomplished, globetrotting photographer.
These days Floyd is more accustomed to capturing the images of others, but he recently sat down with the MSR to reflect on his storied career, what drives and inspires him, and why his most recent trip to Africa left him contemplating a move to the continent.
As the oldest of nine kids, Floyd learned quickly to fend for himself growing up on the South Side of Chicago, Illinois. In his early years, his family lived in the notoriously crime-ridden and now-demolished Robert Taylor Homes projects in Bronzeville, and later moved to Englewood.
Tall and lean with natural athletic prowess, Floyd found a bit of shelter from the streets through sports. “Most of the guys who were involved in the streets had dropped out of school and were involved in gangs, and I was playing basketball,” remembered Floyd. “So they sort of protected me, as if [to say], ‘You’ve got a way out.’ They kinda looked out for me and wouldn’t allow for me to get into trouble.”
Stray gunfire is no respecter of persons, however. Shaken one night after a bullet grazed his head, Floyd sought comfort in church and was moved by a sermon that encouraged congregants to hold fast to their dreams.
Soon Floyd would study theology, journeying in 1980 to what was then North Central Bible Institute, now North Central University in Minneapolis, to take up religious studies and play basketball.
After graduating, he played basketball in a pro league overseas before returning to the Twin Cities in 1984 to work with troubled youth.
“I started out at Park Avenue Methodist Church as an athletic director and gang outreach worker,” recalled Floyd. “So, that meant that [I’d work with] all the [young gang members] that came around Park Avenue when they used to have what they called the blacktop. Everyone played basketball out there.”
A turning point for Floyd’s outreach came after the gang-related shooting of Christine Kreitz, a White teen killed at Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Park in South Minneapolis in 1985. Kreitz’ murder consumed Twin Cities’ media at the time, and Floyd found himself in the eye of the frenzy.
“People around here didn’t know anything about it [the gang connection to Kreitz’ murder],” said Floyd. “So from that point on, I was on television all the time…on the talk shows, taking the media around and explaining to them about gangs and what was going on. Because of me coming from Chicago, I knew [about] it.”
Floyd’s outreach program at Park Avenue would eventually become too much for the church — the presence of the young gang members began to scare away churchgoers. The effort closed down and Floyd moved on to work with The City, Inc., where he was embraced and influenced by veteran activist Spike Moss, among others.
Moss remembered, “As a young man, [Steve] was really interested in saving the lives of other young men. I really loved that about him. He taught them everything that he knew, and talked to them about his mistakes, and taught them about their mistakes…
“We did one-on-ones [counseling sessions] and I don’t know many people who did one-on-ones better than Steve. He was really a great mentor to the young men. He was determined, he was strong, and he was consistent. My thing was to encourage him, reinforce him and help him.”
Initially, Floyd helped gather gang members for what would become United for Peace, a coalition in the early 1990s that was dedicated to ending gang violence. But he backed away from the effort due to what he saw as a lack of organization. The initiative eventually unraveled after the gang-related murder of Police Officer Jerry Haaf in 1992 caused the delicate alliance between police, outreach workers and gang members to erode.
“I was being investigated along with everyone else,” said Floyd. “When the feds and everybody comes in when a police officer gets killed, and you’ve been working with all of these kids, and you’re this close to all the people that were involved — things happen that you didn’t know the federal government could do. And I went into a deep depression.
“So, my son and I went to Africa. I didn’t know anybody, but I bought two tickets and said, ‘Let’s go to Africa.’ And I went to east Africa first and started the experience and journey of just traveling.”
But the call of street outreach never left Floyd. From 1998 to 2001 he served as an advocate for victims of gang violence and homicide at the Hennepin County Attorney’s Office.
“I can drive and see where people got killed, and I can remember their names…”—Steve Floyd
Floyd worked with then-Hennepin County prosecutor Senator Amy Klobuchar, whose work he came to respect. “She wasn’t going to just lock up somebody because [the police] said they did it,” recalled Floyd of Klobuchar. “You really had to have proof that this person did that crime. She stood on that.”
Floyd’s job as homicide advocate involved protecting the yellow tape — the thin, unforgiving line that separates State evidence from a mother’s child.
“At the county attorney’s office in the late ’90s when this was, like, ‘Murderapolis,’ I was doing three or four murders a week,” said Floyd. “Somebody gets shot, 911 is called, a person is dead and the homicide police calls me.
“When I get on that homicide scene and there’s a 17-year-old laying there dead, and it’s eerie and it’s quiet, and all of a sudden you see the mother running and the agony and disbelief that she’s running to her child…and she gets there and the yellow tape is up — my job is that she cannot go into that yellow tape because it’s a crime scene,” explained Floyd.
He continued, “And [I tell her], ‘I know that is your baby, but when the person is killed on the street they belong to the State, they don’t belong to the family anymore. Then that scream comes out — that scream for her child that she can’t even get to. And I mean they will fight you! They’ll slap you, and it’s a horrible, emotional thing.
“And my next step is to say, ‘Once they finish their investigation — you don’t know this yet — but the most important thing you’re going to want is to find out who did it and why. You [have to tell them this to] calm them down. And sometimes they would keep bodies out there for eight hours.”
What prepared him for such heart-wrenching work? “Just growing up in Chicago,” said Floyd. “My father was murdered, you know. He was killed on the streets and they never found the person who did it. We didn’t even find him until 30 days later.
“They had him in the morgue that long, and we were looking for him all that time. So it’s understanding what it’s like and making a choice to say, ‘I’m going to help people.’”
Floyd is named after his father and remembers bonding with him over basketball. His father served in Vietnam, and while on break from the service he was charged with a weapons violation and sentenced to nine years in prison. A few years after coming out of prison, he was beaten to death on the streets of Chicago.
“Because they never found the person who killed him, that was one of the things [that compelled] me to do what I did in the streets and the county attorney’s office with Sen. Klobuchar,” confided Floyd. “It fulfilled a need. People would ask me, ‘How could you do that? Continue to witness scenes like that?’ And I know it was because of the effects of my [father’s murder].”
“When he was an advocate for victims of violence, Steve worked tirelessly to stand up for and help out the citizens of Hennepin County.” —Sen. Amy Klobuchar
But witnessing countless homicide scenes left its own scars. “Right now I can drive and I see where people got killed, and I can remember their names and I can remember what happened. So it’s all those type of memories — like being in a war and having post-traumatic incidents. And you have to be strong.”
Floyd’s strength and dedication to the work has not been forgotten by Sen. Klobuchar. “When he was an advocate for victims of violence, Steve worked tirelessly to stand up for and help out the citizens of Hennepin County,” noted Klobuchar in an email to the MSR. “When Steve and I worked together, he was fully committed to doing his job with integrity and to making positive change in our community.”
As committed as he was, the emotional weight of the work eventually took its toll. Floyd’s body began to betray him on the job. “I was doing two or three of those [homicides] a week,” said Floyd. “I’m sitting on the couch waiting for this interview [with the family of a murder victim and an attorney] and tears just started coming down my face. I’m like, ‘man, what is going on?!’
“And the attorney looked at me and said, ‘Steve, get out of here. Go. You need to go.’ All he was saying is, ‘You need to take a break’ because everything was coming out.”
Drained and depressed, Floyd was granted a month off to regroup. It was at this time that his love of travel took flight.
“I’d go home and literally turn on the Travel Channel and say, ‘Whatever country is on this Travel Channel, that’s where I’m going,” said Floyd. “So then I started traveling that way…to get beyond the burnout and the depression.”
To date, Floyd has visited 59 countries.
Next: Floyd’s love of travel leads to a career as a National Geographic-trained photographer. He also shares how his recent trip to West Africa offered him a personal revelation and liberation. Read part two: From pain to purpose: A harrowing past leads one man to seek the greater good
Paige Elliott is the digital editor at the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder.