Tiffany Andreoli was busy last year restoring a tumbledown commercial space at East 54th Street and Fleet Avenue into a makerspace with her husband, Anthony, near their Slavic Village home when she started to notice an uptick in neighborhood violence. The experienced community organizer soon asked the local community development organization, Slavic Village Development [SVD], what she could do to help.
"Slavic Village is our home, and we love it for a lot of reasons—the affordability, so many active and involved groups," says Andreoli, a mother of three young children. "We feel like we’re among our own."
Safety previously had not been a large concern for Andreoli, in part, because of those feelings.
When asked about recent, national coverage on violence that focused on Slavic Village, she says the neighborhood gets a bad rap. Still, she says her family noticed more gunfire over time and felt the need to become part of a solution.
“As a parent who has invested heavily, I thought, 'now I have to do something,'" she says.
Andreoli signed on as a Community Steward—a SVD program that encourages residents to get involved in "building bridges through connecting, learning, and practicing" with a group of 10 other community members.
Joyce CummingsLast summer, she joined with another steward, her neighbor and former school principal Joyce Cummings, to alleviate the isolation everybody was feeling due to the pandemic. They convinced neighbors to gather on front lawns (wearing masks) and to bring a dish of healthy food to share. About 60 people showed up, conversed, and had a nice time.
Andreoli and Cummings followed up the potluck event with an impromptu jazz fest with front-porch performances by area musicians. Cummings, who after retirement moved to Slavic Village from a nearby suburb 15 years ago, says the pandemic and economic fallout of 2020 was a lot to handle for a neighborhood previously targeted by sub-prime lenders.
Slavic Village was just beginning to recover from the 2008 financial crisis and the unscrupulous lenders who targeted homes in the area—leading to one of the country's highest foreclosure rates and subsequent vacancies.
"We're building stronger ties with those we don't know," Cummings says, "and when you have activities, it's toward building a safer community."
Rebuilding trust takes a village
Andreoli, Cummings, and others involved in SVD’s Community Steward program are part of a larger effort focused on violence prevention in Cleveland. That effort includes organizations working on community outreach, like University Settlement, which is leading an effort to stem isolation and hunger due to the pandemic and prolonged economic uncertainty.
"We are proud of our work with our Community Stewards," says SVD executive director Chris Alvarado. "We have our everyday citizens leading us. We have to remain committed to these and other programs that build connections and leadership. We have to restore power and fulfillment to our neighbors who have not had this."
Burten, Bell, Carr Development [BBC] has a similar program in which residents team up to knock on doors and deliver supplies in the Buckeye and Central neighborhoods.
"It's about building trust," says BBC executive director Joy Johnson. "Our Buckeye ambassadors are part of that solution. We're seeing people rise up during this tragedy."
The need for these efforts is undoubtedly great. According to police data, there was a 44% increase in gun-related violence in Cleveland in 2020, which led to one of the city's deadliest years on record.
Local experts and residents focused on safety efforts say they understand the causes of that sobering statistic and, thus, the need for an organized effort to address it.
"There are things we can do to reduce crime," Andreoli says, adding that a group of residents have come up with a five-point strategy. They would like to build connectivity between residents, businesses, and organizations; improve physical conditions like vacant land; have safety and public health resource distributions; track and report when a new idea is working; and advocate for policy change.
The increase in gun violence follows an existing pattern where perpetrators, as well as victims, are young, minority males, says Wendy Regoeczi, a professor of criminology at Cleveland State University and a board member of University Settlement.
"In my opinion, the increase in gun use in Slavic Village is mirroring the increase in lethal gun violence we've seen not just in Cleveland, but in large, urban areas across the U.S.," Regoeczi says.
She points to an increase in gun purchases as a factor, some of which found their way into the hands of young city residents.
"There are more guns around now," Regoeczi explains. "There was a huge increase of gun purchases [last year in the U.S.]"
Ohioans registered guns at a rapid clip in 2020. According to the FBI's database on firearms, 976,751 firearm background checks were performed in Ohio last year, compared to 638,495 in 2019.
"Access to guns is as easy as getting gas," confirms Cleveland Peacemakers Alliance [CPA] executive director Myesha Crowe.
The Peacemakers are intervening in areas of Cleveland when a gun is involved in a crime—from speaking to doctors on behalf of emotionally distraught family members of gunshot victims to working to reduce potential retribution after the incident.
Still, Crowe and others say a heavy a focus on guns distracts from the root causes of what makes somebody want to pick up a gun in the first place—such as the prolonged closure of schools and recreation centers; the loss of jobs; and pandemic isolation.
It was "a perfect storm," Andreoli says.
Cummings is active in pulling people together. To do so, she is organizing tree plantings, decorative street painting, and beautification projects.
"A lot happens with isolation and fear," Cummings says. "Building those connections is key."
Incidents of domestic violence were on the rise as well in 2020. Regoeczi confirms that federal law prohibits those with a domestic violence misdemeanor and/or a restraining order from purchasing a firearm or ammunition. However, she worries that the system is not equipped to store, catalog, and return firearms that are surrendered by domestic abuse perpetrators.
"We know hurt people hurt people," says MetroHealth resilience educator Katherine Kurtz, quoting author, Dr. Wendy Ellis. "When we look at the impact of COVID, which we name as a collective trauma, it makes sense that we would see an increase of [violence] and political unrest. Because the world saw George Floyd murdered, there was a collective awakening and, obviously, the political unrest adds another layer. There's an intergenerational impact of COVID, and inequitable aspects there."
CPA is also trying to stop violence among youth in the area. COVID-19 protocols have produced a rise in screen time, resulting in more cyberbullying and virtual beefs on social media that can spark real violence.
"There’s a disconnect where [youth] don't know virtual from reality, and a lot of violence spills over,” says Crowe, who has a full-time staffer devoted to virtual outreach. “The answer is we meet them in the virtual space."
Alvarado agrees that a disconnected community can lead to violence. "So much violence occurs when people are disconnected from each other, and they do not see each other as fellow human beings who deserve empathy,” she says. “And, sometimes, those who resort to violence haven't received that empathy themselves. The pandemic has just exacerbated our divisions."
The search for answers, Crowe says, starts with building a shared safety plan. Part of this effort is to expand on the “trusted messenger” model that CPA operates on, where experience often holds more sway than a college degree.
"A multigenerational approach where an elder and someone who works in the community, like myself, all come together and say, 'wow, there were five lives lost, and what are we doing,’" Crowe says.
Diane Howard fits the mold as a community elder who has walked a mile or more in her neighbors’ shoes. A longtime community activist, Howard is a trusted figure in her public housing community on the near West Side. Known as "Mama D" by the youngsters and parents she speaks to, she shares her experience of raising five sons and living through domestic abuse growing up.
"My message [to parents] is you have to be the one to talk to your children," says Howard. "Even though it takes a village to raise them, what you do in front of them—they hear you. If they have a problem, you listen to your children. It takes a parent to listen to your children. You still have time to save your son or daughter or, maybe, nephew or grandson."
Kurtz at MetroHealth knows peer support works, but she bemoans that the funding for supportive services does not always keep pace with the need for them. For example, Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost’s office has not yet offered specifics on the renewal of the Victims of Crime Act grant.
Programs paid for by this grant include MetroHealth's clinics in the Buckeye neighborhood that counsel victims and witnesses of violence in public housing units and at places like the King Kennedy Boys & Girls Club, which is near the scene of the December 2020 shooting death of 15-year-old Anthony Hughes Jr. That shooting took place nearly a month after a Cuyahoga Metropolitan Housing Authority officer fatally shot Arthur Keith, another young man who attended the club.
Andreoli says the recent addition of federal resources like the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives’ ShotSpotter technology, which can locate shots fired, is one step in their five-point plan to improve safety.
The plan is modelled after a nationally recognized plan from Everytown USA that Andreoli says she and her Slavic Village neighbors are sharing at meetings at city hall and with police officers.
"Joyce and I thought, 'we can really do something,’" Andreoli says. "Instead of being a victim, we are empowered to make change."
Kurtz observes new energy toward finding solutions that has led to MetroHealth’s new Institute of H.O.P.E. that is working on community building. The program includes educating leaders on addressing the causes of violence.
"It is so important to expand our empathy,” Kurtz says, “and to make sure, if there is trauma, it is not just an individual action. Policy and our work is needed now more than ever."
This story is part of FreshWater’s series, Community Development Connection, in partnership with Cleveland Neighborhood Progress and Cleveland Development Advisors and funded in-part by a Google Grant. The series seeks to raise awareness about the work of 29 Community Development Corporations (CDCs) as well as explore the efforts of neighborhood-based organizations, leaders, and residents who are focused on moving their communities forward during a time of unprecedented challenge.