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.

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.

“In the last few months, we have definitely seen a shift,” Ms. Britton said. “It’s changed. You can really, really tell.”

Not far away sit the offices of University Settlement, a 94-year-old social service institution in Slavic Village, which before the pandemic would host a weekly sit-down dinner for anyone in the community. This has changed to takeout. And while food is in more demand than ever — in March the organization prepared more meals than it had over any month in its history — social connections are coming apart. Some of the people whom the organization routinely checked up on seem to have just disappeared, no longer answering phones or knocks at the door.

“The community felt frayed and forgotten anyway,” Earl Pike, the executive director of University Settlement, said. “It’s beginning to feel a little ‘Mad Max’-y.”

He recalled a day in early December when Cleveland was hit by the first blizzard of the season. It was a one-day storm but it knocked the power out, kept much of the staff from coming in and triggered a flurry of frantic messages from people in the neighborhood asking about food.

“Everything broke and everybody needed help,” Mr. Pike said, seeing in that day a foretaste of what awaits as resources dwindle. “It’s the combination of increased need and diminished capacity to meet that need.”

This was a common sentiment: As bad as things were, they could always get worse — and in the near term most likely would.

Few understand this better than Mariama Jalloh, 40, a mother of two who these days works at Elizabeth Baptist helping with the schoolchildren. Growing up in Gambia and Sierra Leone, Ms. Jalloh and everyone she knew pictured America as “just close to heaven,” where the government took care of people and life was smooth, “like glass.”

She found a coarser reality when she arrived six years ago. But as 2020 began, in her first full year as an American citizen, Ms. Jalloh had managed some stability, taking classes to become a nurse and living with her children in a neatly kept house on a quiet street, among mostly older neighbors.

Now she returns to a changed neighborhood. She has not seen some of her neighbors for months, though she has seen ambulances come and go. There are more strangers on the street. The house she rents might soon be sold at auction, her landlord informed her, though she is unsure what that would mean for her.

In the meantime, her children have learned a new drill: running down into the basement at the first sound of gunfire. The family does this two or three evenings a week now, she said, sometimes twice a night on weekends. She learned drills like this during her own youth in the middle of a civil war.

“I’ve seen people killed in front of me,” Ms. Jalloh said of her childhood. “I’ve seen all kinds of things.”

Her children did not know these kinds of terrible things and she had hoped, living in America, that they never would. But these days, as she finds herself huddling with them in the damp basement, it is clear that the country she now calls home is not the country she once thought it was.

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