Gunfire and Crashing Cars: In Struggling Neighborhoods, ‘We’re Losing Our Grip’

CLEVELAND — When evening arrives, Darryl Brazil sits on his porch and watches the world fall apart.

His neighborhood on the east side of Cleveland has held on through years of hard times. It was rough around the edges in parts, but his block was quiet, or at least it used to be. Now, wild things happen day and night.

“You’ll see someone come flying down the street doing 50 and 60 miles an hour,” he said. “On a residential street. It doesn’t make sense.” Couples that had always bickered harmlessly are now ending their arguments with a stabbing. Gun battles break out a couple of blocks away. When Mr. Brazil was at the store the other week, a man pulled out a gun and threatened to kill his dog for barking.

“I’ve heard people say that people get crazy when there is a full moon out,” said Mr. Brazil, 71, who has seen a lot but nothing like what he has seen in the past year. “Seems like the full moon is out every damn day now.”

There are plenty of numbers that quantify the combined impact of the pandemic and the recession that have battered the country: At least 7.8 million people have fallen into poverty, the biggest plunge in six decades; 85 million Americans say they have had trouble paying basic household expenses, including food and rent; there are roughly 10 million fewer jobs now than there were in February.

But the numbers do not capture the feeling of growing desperation in neighborhoods like some on Cleveland’s east side — communities that had already been struggling before the pandemic. These days people who have long lived and worked in these neighborhoods talk of a steady unraveling.

Gunfire echoes almost nightly, they say. The Cleveland police reported six homicides in one 24-hour period in November. Everyone talks about the driving — over the past few months in the neighborhood of Slavic Village, just two miles west of Mr. Brazil’s home, cars have crashed into a corner grocery store, a home and a beloved local diner. In Cuyahoga County, 19 people recently died of drug overdoses in one week. All as the virus continues its lethal spread.

“Sometimes,” said the Rev. Richard Gibson, whose 101-year-old church stands in Slavic Village, “it feels like we’re losing our grip on civilization.”

The relief measures signed recently by President Trump — $600 stimulus checks, an extra $300 per week to unemployment benefits, a one-month extension to a federal moratorium on evictions, $25 billion in rental assistance — offer some help, though there is no direct state or local aid. And from the ground, the whole system can feel impossibly opaque.

Legal Aid lawyers in Cleveland say many of their clients had not even heard about the eviction moratorium, some only learning of it after being evicted. One client, a 30-year-old mother of four, showed up to plead her case at rent court only to be turned away because new pandemic protocols, which she had never heard about, forbade children on courtroom floors. The places where many would ordinarily have gone to learn about new benefits and new rules — where they might have access to a decent internet connection, for example — are now closed.

“Our library is not open anymore, our Boys Club is not open anymore,” said Tony Brancatelli, a member of the City Council whose ward includes Slavic Village, once a neighborhood of mostly Polish, Czech and Slovak immigrants that is now roughly half African-American. But, he said, “when you can’t do basic engagement with families and residents, and social and civic organizations are shut down, it really tears at the fabric of the neighborhood.”

A decade ago, during the foreclosure crisis, when parts of Mr. Brancatelli’s ward were among the hardest-hit places in the country, more people at least kept their jobs. They had friends and relatives they could move in with or turn to for financial support. Today, with parts of Slavic Village above 30 percent unemployment and a virus that preys on small gatherings, those supports are not there. People are largely on their own.

And the virus continues to rage. Cleveland has been spared the catastrophic case totals of cities like Detroit or New Orleans but has nonetheless just endured its worst two-month stretch. As December came to a close, four out of five critical care beds in Cuyahoga County hospitals were being used.

The neighborhoods on the east side of town had begun to show some progress after decade of laborious rebuilding, Mr. Brancatelli and others said. This past year swiftly pushed things to the brink of collapse.

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The police reports from his ward corroborate this: more violence, more harrowing details about the way people are now surviving. A man living with his son in an abandoned house was beaten and shot by thieves; an Amazon delivery truck was carjacked and abandoned. House burglaries are down across the city while the number of shootings has exploded. As in Cincinnati, Wichita, Kan., and several other U.S. cities, 2020 was the worst year for murders in Cleveland in decades.

Mr. Gibson, the pastor, has buried victims of sickness and gunfire alike in the past few months. Overlooking a neighborhood checkered with deserted houses, his church, Elizabeth Baptist, is one of the few trusted institutions in a place where mistrust of institutions runs deep.

The church gym now houses a Covid-19 testing center, and across the parking lot sits a building where parents drop off schoolchildren for remote learning. A huge food bank sets up in the lot every other Saturday; Narcan is also handed out there. A church-affiliated homeless shelter sits across the lawn. There are also the individual pleas for help. A man recently came to the church asking for five blankets, the pastor said, his family preferring to stay together in their car than split up in gender-segregated homeless shelters.

People at the church and other local support institutions have been working through exhaustion and even sickness for the past 10 months, and they all say similar things: the scale of need is immense; a lot of requests come from those who have never needed this kind of help before; what was already fragile seems to be cracking.

Five minutes south of the church is Neighborhood Pets, a bright nonprofit storefront that opened up four years ago in Slavic Village. It is busy these days. Becca Britton, the founder, says that many of the people who come in have no family, no social network and no support system. “Their dog or their cat, that’s all they have,” she said. But even these bonds are in jeopardy.

Every day people call in because they can no longer afford dog or cat food, she said. Some call panicked because they are not allowed to keep a pet in a homeless shelter. Other calls are much grimmer. One of her customers, an older man whom she thought of as especially kindhearted, is now in jail, accused of killing a woman in his neighborhood after an argument about his dog.

The Second Stimulus

Answers to Your Questions About the Stimulus Bill

Updated Dec 30, 2020

The economic relief package will issue payments of $600 and distribute a federal unemployment benefit of $300 for at least 10 weeks. Find more about the measure and what’s in it for you. For details on how to get assistance, check out our Hub for Help.

    • Will I receive another stimulus payment? Individual adults with adjusted gross income on their 2019 tax returns of up to $75,000 a year will receive a $600 payment, and a couple (or someone whose spouse died in 2020) earning up to $150,000 a year will get twice that amount. There is also a $600 payment for each child for families who meet those income requirements. People who file taxes using the head of household status and make up to $112,500 also get $600, plus the additional amount for children. People with incomes just above these levels will receive a partial payment that declines by $5 for every $100 in income.
    • When might my payment arrive? The Treasury Department said on Dec. 29 that it had started making direct deposit payments, and would begin to mail checks the next day. But it will be a while before all eligible people receive their money.
    • Does the agreement affect unemployment insurance? Lawmakers agreed to extend the amount of time that people can collect unemployment benefits and restart an extra federal benefit that is provided on top of the usual state benefit. But instead of $600 a week, it would be $300. That will last through March 14.
    • I am behind on my rent or expect to be soon. Will I receive any relief? The agreement will provide $25 billion to be distributed through state and local governments to help renters who have fallen behind. To receive assistance, households will have to meet several conditions: Household income (for 2020) cannot exceed more than 80 percent of the area median income; at least one household member must be at risk of homelessness or housing instability; and individuals must qualify for unemployment benefits or have experienced financial hardship — directly or indirectly — because of the pandemic. The agreement said assistance will be prioritized for families with lower incomes and that have been unemployed for three months or more.

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