SAFEighteen serves as model for neighborhood safety
by Chuck Hoven
(Plain Press, March 2006) SAFEighteen, a safety program in Ward 18 that empowers residents to get involved and links safety to the quality and condition of neighborhood housing, is a model created over many years that proponents says would improve the quality of life in Cleveland if implemented citywide. Interviews with the non-profit organizations Cudell Improvement, Safety-Net and Midwest Housing focused on Ward 18’s safety initiatives.
While the program was recently named SAFEighteen, its roots go back over thirty years. Cudell Improvement Executive Director Anita Brindza said that Cudell Improvement was the first neighborhood organization in the city to receive federal funds to improve neighborhood safety when neighborhood activist Bill Denihan’s grant proposal for a safety program was funded in 1974. Brindza says Cudell Improvement has continued to make funding safety programs a priority ever since. The organization has managed to keep safety in its budget and build various safety programs to complement existing programs. She said the commitment to safety issues by Cudell Improvement’s members, plus the support of long time Ward 18 Councilman Jay Westbrook, have allowed the organization to focus its efforts on safety.
Using a combination of city, county, state, federal and foundation money, Cudell Improvement has managed since 1974 to commit a minimum of $30,000 per year to safety initiatives, according to Brindza. Brindza believes that creating a safe neighborhood is “one of the fundamentals of what a Community Development Corporation should be doing.” She noted that development doesn’t happen in a vacuum. If people don’t feel safe, they will move. Brindza said if people are going to stay in a neighborhood a long time, quality of life is important. “Crime prevention is a big part of quality of life.”
Two full-time organizers work on safety issues in Ward 18. Birgit Hilliard serves as Program Manager of the Cudell Crime Prevention Program, which serves the area of Ward 18 north of Lorain Avenue (between W. 85th and W. 117th). Michael McDonald is Program Manager of Safety-Net, which serves the area of Ward 18 south of Lorain Avenue (between W. 84th and the area just west of West Boulevard.) The organizers work closely with First District police and neighborhood residents. Hilliard says she often calls Fresh Start officers to relay information given to her by neighborhood residents, who sometimes call her or McDonald before calling the police.
The safety organizers recognize that housing and safety are tied together. McDonald says it is important that a vacant home “that needs to get boarded up get boarded up”. He says it is very helpful if property managers have a hands-on approach. He says the Ward 18 staff has a good relationship with the staff of the Cuyahoga County Metropolitan Housing Authority’s Housing Choice Program. However, he noted, “some area landlords do not care, they don’t do the things that lead to long term success such as screening tenants, or having expectations in the lease that can be enforced” McDonald says the staff of Midwest Housing Partnership works to help address these and other housing issues.
Midwest Housing Partnership, for which Cudell Improvement serves as fiscal agent, provides two staff people to work on code enforcement and other housing issues in the neighborhood. MHP director Jan Kappenhagen and her assistant Holly Gilbert work closely with the safety coordinators, reflecting Ward 18 Councilman Westbrook’s belief in the relationship between addressing housing code problems and neighborhood safety.
The Midwest Housing Partnership works with neighborhood residents to help make them aware of programs that help them keep their house up to code, warns residents of contractor or lending scams, tracks abandoned houses in the neighborhood, works on code enforcement, and tracks neighborhood cases in housing court. Kappenhagen works to improve the appearance of neighborhoods, noting that clean, well-maintained neighborhoods help prevent crime. “Perception is a big part of crime prevention. Housing and safety are so intertwined. You can’t really separate them out. If something is left unattended, it looks as if no one cares, and anything goes,” says Kappenhagen.
Kappenhagen says eviction proceedings by landlords can help to force out problem tenants. Other times health code violations or housing code violations are used to address a situation. Midwest Housing works closely with city of Cleveland housing and health inspectors. A big problem has been the recent increase in vacant houses in Ward 18. Kappenhagen and Gilbert keep track of vacant or abandoned houses – currently there are about 180 in Ward 18 – up 30 houses from last year. Kappenhagen attributes some of the increase to predatory lending and some to people taking on mortgages that they can’t afford. Kappenhagen says maintenance of a vacant house is particularly difficult if the mortgage is held by an out-of-town lender.
Brindza credits part of the success of Cudell Improvement, Safety-Net and Midwest Housing to the continuity of leadership and staff. Brindza has been with Cudell Improvement since the 1970s. Ward 18 Councilman Jay Westbrook has served Ward 18 for 25 years. Brindza’s and Westbrook’s commitment to funding the safety and housing initiatives have resulted in staff members of all the organizations staying in the same positions for many years.
Brindza sees part of the role of a Community Development Corporation (CDC) as being “that continuous friendly face.” Brindza says a CDC can be accessible in ways that City Hall cannot. ”We make an effort to invite people in,” she said, noting over 450 people participated in the development of the neighborhood master plan. By inviting them to share their views at neighborhood meetings, relationships with long-term staff members are developed. People feel comfortable calling or coming to the organization to share their concerns about the neighborhood. “They see us as a mini-City Hall,” says Brindza.
Cudell Improvement’s Board of Trustees shares Brindza’s commitment to safety, she said, noting “It is the basis for everything we do.”
Brindza says volunteers in almost every neighborhood in the ward help to pass out fliers for meetings. These volunteers hear about problems with housing and safety and pass them along to staff. Brindza says residents who see evidence of drug activity, prostitution or other suspicious activity are trained to bring the problems to the attention of staff members immediately. “We can be really effective with problems when brought to our attention immediately, “ she said.
The reverse is also true. Hilliard says that by monitoring crime statistics in the neighborhood, she and McDonald can inform residents if there is a trend in a certain neighborhood. For example, they can notify neighbors of an unusual number of break-ins or purse snatchings. They can also dispel rumors by getting the real story to people when stories are exaggerated or false rumors spread.
Michael McDonald of Safety-Net says that neighbors involved in block clubs have learned how to more effectively address neighborhood issues through block watch and crime watch training. For example, residents have learned how to collect precise information needed by a vice unit to speed up the process of closing down a drug house.
Hilliard notes the involvement of neighborhood residents in closing four big drug houses in the area. Hilliard says block watch training helps people to prepare for situations and to work to limit crimes of opportunity. She says Cudell Improvement has an engraving tool so people can engrave valuables such as appliances and garden tools. She says the engraving not only deters theft, but will aid in retrieving stolen goods recovered by the police.
Cudell Improvement, Safety-Net and Midwest Housing staff make use of a number of programs and resources in their work to make Ward 18 safer.
Each of the merchant organizations in the neighborhood has a Security Committee that meets regularly to work on improving safety. Brindza points out that a number of the merchant organizations in the neighborhood have hired police beat patrols. These patrols use off-duty police officers on commercial strips along Detroit, Madison, Lorain, Clifton and West Boulevard. Brindza notes that the Detroit Avenue patrol was the first private beat patrol in the city when in started in the late 1980s. When possible, merchant organizations hire First District officers. Brindza says the officers gain an intimate knowledge of businesses, trouble spots and troublemakers as they walk their neighborhood beats. She says they then use this knowledge when they are on patrol as First District officers or pass on the information to their fellow officers. Cudell Improvement’s Associate Director of Commercial Development, Kathy Smith Sabolik, designed a booklet Make Safety Your Business. The booklet outlines ways shop owners can make their businesses safer and is now being used by development corporations throughout the city as part of the Restore Cleveland program
SAFEighteen works with the Community-Based Prosecution Office for the First Police District. Hilliard notes that the relationship that she and McDonald have with the community based prosecutor’s office helps them to know when big cases are coming up so they can get the neighborhood involved.
Part of that involvement involves residents and staff members participating in the Court Watch Program. They go down to the court to watch the trials of individuals charged with crimes in the neighborhood. Their presence in the courtroom helps to demonstrate to the presiding judge the community’s interest in the outcome of the trial.
McDonald notes that the neighborhood-based prosecutors are more familiar with neighborhood criminals and ask for the input of the neighborhood, where of greater knowledge of defendants’ pasts can result in creative sentencing.
Sentences can also be targeted to neighborhood needs. For four hours each Sunday, Midwest Housing’s Kappenhagen and her husband work with offenders assigned to Court Community Service. Community Service assignments can include neighborhood cleanup, snow removal, and covering up graffiti, which discourages graffiti artists. “The quicker it is covered up the slower it is to come back,” said McDonald.
McDonald says he tries to steer young people to the Bridgeway youth program on W. 88th and Denison. He says the youths recently created a mural in a neighborhood park. Ward-wide curfew sweeps are planned twice yearly. Neighborhood residents participate with police in these efforts.
The Cleveland Mediation Center has trained a dozen people in Ward 18. Hilliard says the program is designed for early intervention in disputes. She said there were five mediations in the neighborhood in the past year. “It is a great tool. Police don’t get called on petty things. People realize they can talk it out,” said Hilliard.
Hilliard also teaches a safety program to children in neighborhood public and private schools. The program targets Pre-K to eighth grade children. It teaches children what to do if they get lost, how to identify appropriate and inappropriate touches and what a child should do if grabbed by someone. Hilliard says the training recently resulted in a child reporting her father, who was indicted for molesting three of his children.
Resident leaders in the neighborhood are invited to meetings to improve their knowledge about various programs that can help address quality of life issues. Residents are also encouraged to participate in the National Night Out Against Crime safety fair, in regular First District Police Community Relations Committee meetings, and other opportunities to learn about resources that can help to improve the neighborhood.
Hilliard misses having a Police Mini Station in the neighborhood to deal with quality of life issues. However, she has the First District Fresh Start officers on her speed-dial and they work to address these issues as time allows. Councilman Westbrook says a neighborhood volunteer police auxiliary unit is now active again, adding another component to the overall neighborhood crime fighting efforts.
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