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Cleveland Activists Seek Ideas for Spending Federal COVID-19 Stimulus Funds

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The Homeless Congress house meeting on April 16 at NEOCH's office served as the first participatory budget meeting. The in-person option accounted for access needs for those currently staying in shelters.

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 the decisions?

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.

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

Organizers 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 has to be spent by 2024. The house parties will help narrow ideas down into specific and actionable items, Lumpkin said.

“You want to make sure that we understand exactly what they want, whether it's passing a law, creating a new commission,” she said. “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. After the votes are cast, the most popular ideas will be shared with city leaders.

Even if decision makers don’t act on the recommendations, Lumpkin said she hopes the effort will help create a framework for including 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 said.

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 finding an apartment recently. 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 said. “Get people in houses, in homes, get them off the street, because home base, home base is the most important thing.”

The best way to tap into what communities need, particularly those who are underserved or marginalized, is to offer a way to contribute to the process, Matos said. 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 said. “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 for existing 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 said.

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

The pandemic has brought increased need nationwide for government help like stimulus checks or food assistance. Allowing the public to contribute to plans for recovery can help build trust in those programs, said 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, or it could be a turning point,” Ortiz said.

Recovering from the pandemic will require communities to work together, Ortiz said, 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,” Ortiz said.

Organizers hope to organize 15 budgetary 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 said, “and give them more specific and clear ways to engage.”

This story is sponsored by the Northeast Ohio Solutions Journalism Collaborative, which is composed of 20-plus Northeast Ohio news outlets, including WKSU.

Copyright 2021 90.3 WCPN ideastream. To see more, visit 90.3 WCPN ideastream.

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Corrected: May 7, 2021 at 5:32 PM EDT
This story originally identified Jennifer Lumpkin as being with the voting advocacy group, Cleveland VOTES. Cleveland VOTES is not involved in the participatory budgeting effort, as this story originally stated. Lumpkin, who works for the organization, is assisting in the participatory budgeting process as a grassroots organizer, independent of her role with Cleveland VOTES.