'The solution may come from the average one of us.' Can grassroots funding create a safer Cleveland?
Warning: This story discusses violence and death.
As the last few warm days of summer clung on this year, four young boys stood on the corner of St. Clair Avenue and London Road holding up ice-cold water bottles and Coke cans, calling out to cars whizzing past.
It was at this intersection, outside a convenience store in Cleveland’s South Collinwood neighborhood, that a month before three teenagers were shot — one fatally.
It’s something these boys, all of whom were raised in Cleveland, have grown accustomed to, said 12-year-old Walter Boykins Jr.
“A lot of people have guns. Every time I see a gun, I run,” Boykins said. “You never know when a person will pull up and just start shooting. It’s messed up.”
Boykins said his father is ready to move because of the violence in the area.
“My buddy got shot in the head when I was 9,” Boykins said. “It was sad. I didn’t cry, though. It was real sad.”
His friend died, he said.
Gun violence in Cleveland is nothing new, but long-term residents say this year it reached a fever pitch unlike they’ve seen before.
As of Monday, 146 people had died by homicide this year, Cleveland police data show. The majority, more than 83%, were Black.
This year's number of homicides exceeds the annual totals for every year from 2011 to 2019. Between 2011 and 2014, there were fewer than 90 homicides a year in Cleveland. Since 2020, there have been at least 130 a year.
Inside City Hall this year, city council members begged for immediate help in their neighborhoods. This summer, the city announced a law enforcement surge with state and federal organizations to target areas with high crime levels, holding traffic stops and seizing guns and drugs.
“Folks are sacrificing from their own income... to try to support young people.”
But many — from residents to policy experts — agree getting to the root of the issue to prevent injuries and deaths is complicated. There have been lots of solutions thrown at the problem by countless organizations and neighborhood groups over the years.
But many doing the work of violence prevention on the neighborhood level point to the same barrier to success: There are not enough resources and nowhere near enough money.
Community members are self-funding a lot of the work, said Habeebah Rasheed Grimes, the CEO of Positive Education Program, an organization committed to helping young people deal with trauma that can lead to gun violence.
“Folks are sacrificing from their own income, their own resources to try to support young people,” Rasheed Grimes said. “Institutions are also very strapped for resources and doing a lot with very little.”
Mayor Justin Bibb and his administration say they are working to address that problem by creating an endowment using $10 million of the city’s half-billion dollar pot of federal stimulus funds. They said those dollars will fund grassroots, local groups for years to come and are expected to generate an additional $13 million over the next 25 years.
“What the safety fund, I think, does is move us in a step of equity and justice in that there are people who are living in our community, in our neighborhoods, living with the children that so many folks might fear and not want to be bothered with, community members who are traumatized and struggling from a place of fight and flight and freeze and fear,” Rasheed Grimes said. “They are on the ground doing the work.”
The first round of applications is now open, with the first million dollars slated to be dispersed in the next year.
The rollout and the results will take time. Meanwhile, many Cleveland residents continue to report the effects of living under the threat of growing brutality.
“It's horrible. It's horrible"
At the Rapid Stop gas station at the corner of East 55th and Payne Avenue, Jamie Talley’s school-aged children peered through the back windshield of the family car as she spoke with reporters. In July, the gas station was the scene of a killing after a fight broke out and several people fired into a crowd.
Talley said violence is all too prevalent in the area.
“My son just lost his older brother last year down in the projects. Got shot... It's hard,” Talley said. “It's just the norm."
Talley said her son became one of three other kids in his class to have lost older brothers and sisters.
"It's horrible," she said. "It's horrible.”
She said her son's brother's murder hadn’t been solved, and it’s been hard for her family. She’s losing faith in the police, in city leadership and in her community. Similar to Boykins’ father, Talley said she is saving up to move out of Cleveland to hopefully give her children a safer life.
Some choose to stay and fight for change
But not everyone has the option of moving. And then there are those who choose to stay and fight for change.
Victim advocate Yvonne Pointer has long been a cornerstone of her block in the Glenville neighborhood on Cleveland's East Side. She said that while violence has gotten worse, she’s seen how her block has evolved with mutual aid.
“So somebody might say, 'Well, I'm going to move to the West Side. I'm going to move to the suburbs.' And I don't know if that's the answer,” Pointer said. “I think the only way that evil can prevail is when good people do nothing. Even in this community that I'm in, I don't necessarily love it, but I know that they need a light as well.”
Pointer insists simple kindness and neighbors watching out for each other, like helping the boy around the corner who’s getting in trouble at school with his homework or taking the kid who loves sports to a Cavaliers game, does make a difference, and can alter the lives of not only youth but adults. She also frequents the local jail to speak with people who are incarcerated and who have been convicted of violent crimes before they return to the community.
It’s important to her because she knows what it’s like to experience violent loss. In 1984, her 14-year-old daughter, Gloria, was raped and killed on her way to school. Pointer dedicated the next decades of her life to finding her daughter’s murderer and advocating for peace in Cleveland, particularly among youth, so no one else has to experience what she has.
“You know, don't make it the mayor's responsibilities. Don't make it only the police responsibilities,” Pointer said. "But what do you think we can do? How do you think we can handle it? And you would be surprised."
So somebody might say, 'Well, I'm going to move to the West Side. I'm going to move to the suburbs.' And I don't know if that's the answer. I think the only way that evil can prevail is when good people do nothing. Even in this community that I'm in, I don't necessarily love it, but I know that they need a light as well.Yvonne Pointer, victim advocate
She said gun violence is complicated, requires long-term solutions and no one person can fix it at once. Pointer decided to serve on the Neighborhood Safety Fund board, which will decide which local groups will get money from the endowment because she’s seen the impact of funding small, grassroots efforts that can make a difference in even just one person’s life.
“The solution may come from the average one of us,” Pointer said. “It may not come from the big organizations. It may come from the person that's in the community — that don't know that they can apply for this grant."
Pointer is particularly focused on supporting young people in her neighborhood.
“We have students, our young people in the community, and I said, ‘Well, let's get them some books. Just hand them a book. 'Did you read your book today?’ You know?
“And it may sound simple. Because it is simple.”
Applications for the Neighborhood Safety Fund are open through November 15 at www.clevelandfoundation.org.
Ideastream is taking a deep dive into the surge in gun violence in Northeast Ohio. We're talking with residents, activists, victims and policy experts to understand what's driving it, the impact it's having and possible solutions. Do you have a story to share?
Email us at email@example.com and stay tuned.