House party: Local activists want your ideas for best ways to spend Federal stimulus funds

Cleveland is receiving more than half a billion dollars as part of a federal stimulus package to combat the economic impact of the pandemic. How should that money be spent and who will have input into that decision?

Local grassroots organizers want a say. They have joined forces to seek input from residents about how they think the money should be spent.

The goal is to share that grassroots input with decision makers.

The American Rescue Plan creates an opportunity to spend on improvements to local infrastructure, aid to businesses and workers and for public benefit. Advocacy groups in Cleveland are trying to highlight those needs through a process called participatory budgeting, where residential input is collected to inform how governments spend the money.

“We're really looking at folks who are looking for, for solutions that are not already built into the budget, for things that are already not tapped into, are not being focused on,” says Jennifer Lumpkin, a grassroots organizer.

Homeless Congress house meeting, the first participatory budgeting house meeting in Cleveland, on April 16th at the Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless officeOrganizers with the Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless (NEOCH), and Policy Matters Ohio, as well as individual advocates and neighborhood groups, are signing up to run house parties—most of them virtual—where people can contribute their thoughts on what needs attention and funding in Cleveland. That could include public transit, housing, internet access or a variety of other needs.

The money must be spent by 2024. The house parties will help narrow ideas down into specific and actionable items, Lumpkin says.

“You want to make sure that we understand exactly what they want, whether it's passing a law, creating a new commission,” she says. “We want to make sure that we have tangible solutions that require money and that people want to see make happen.”

House parties will be advertised by organizers on social media. The recommended size is around 10 participants to keep the discussion productive and focused. Responses will be collected and summarized online, where other residents can vote for their favorites. At the end, the most popular ideas will be shared with city leaders.

Even if decision makers don’t act on the recommendations, Lumpkin says she hopes the effort will help create a framework for how to include residential input in the process for future budgets.

“We're trying to really use tools that show folks—and maybe show our city—how to make a more participatory, cohesive and transparent way to really inform what people want to see and how it can get done,” Lumpkin says.

Participatory budgeting already is used in other cities, including Nashville and Los Angeles. In Cleveland, the organizations spearheading the effort are composing a letter to the city outlining their request for inclusion in the budget process, but there’s been no formal communication yet.

For the residents participating, though, the process offers an opportunity to feel like they’re being heard. Adalberto Matos plans to take part in one of the house parties. He was homeless and spent time in a shelter before recently finding an apartment. He says he wants the city to spend money on programs that would provide resources such as permanent housing and job training for the homeless.

“We need to get the people off the streets, that's the most important thing,” Matos says. “Get people in houses, in homes, get them off the street, because home base is the most important thing.”

The best way to find what communities need, particularly those who are underserved or marginalized, is to offer them a way to contribute to the process, explains Matos. That’s why he wants to be involved.

“It’s important to know and to hear from the people that are in shelters, the homeless people,” Matos says. “Anybody could give an opinion on what the homeless need, but the homeless, they know much better what they need themselves.”

Matos also wants to see improvements in transportation access and wants current assistance programs to be streamlined so getting help requires fewer steps. Developing policy and budget priorities without residents’ input can create gaps between what’s needed and what’s available, he says.

“We have to do more. There's a big disconnect between the bureaucracy and the people that are below that,” Matos says. “You know, the economy should trickle downwards, not upwards.”

The pandemic has brought increased need nationwide for government assistance like stimulus checks or food assistance. Allowing the public to contribute to plans for recovery can help build trust in those programs, says Daniel Ortiz of the liberal think tank Policy Matters Ohio.

“This sort of crisis of just a lack of faith or investment in our local governments could get worse in 2021,” he warns. “Or it could be a turning point,”
Recovering from the pandemic will require communities to work together, says Ortiz, and participatory budgeting is one way to find shared values and move forward.

“It's important to see this sort of monumental investment and try to do our best to center people's voices in understanding that they can engage with local governments and in advocating for the type of investments that are going to help us rebuild after this pandemic,” says Ortiz.

Organizers hope to host 15 house parties by May 20. After that, hosts will meet to share results and work out the next steps.

“We're still looking at how we can make this connection between local, state and federal government more clear for more people,” Ortiz says, “and give them more specific and clear ways to engage.” 

Taylor Haggerty is a reporter with WCPN. This story came out of a partnership with the Northeast Ohio Solutions Journalism Collaborative (NEO SoJo), which is composed of 20-plus Northeast Ohio news outlets including FreshWater Cleveland. Stay tuned for more reporting from us on these participatory budgeting sessions.

Editor's note: An earlier version of this story referred to the pandemic stimulus package as the American Recovery Act. It is called the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021.
Cleveland VOTES is not involved in the participatory budgeting effort, as this story originally stated. Jennifer Lumpkin, who works for the organization, is assisting in the participatory budgeting process as a grassroots organizer, independent of her role with Cleveland VOTES.