Plenty of numbers can quantify the way the pandemic and the resulting recession have battered the United States: 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.
But those numbers do not capture the feeling of growing desperation in some communities that had already been struggling before the pandemic. In certain neighborhoods on Cleveland’s east side, for example, longtime residents and workers talk of a steady unraveling.
Gunfire echoes almost nightly, they say. The Cleveland police reported six homicides in one 24-hour period in November. As in Cincinnati, Wichita, Kan., and several other U.S. cities, 2020 was the worst year for murders in Cleveland in decades.
Everyone talks about the crazy driving — over the past few months in the neighborhood of Slavic Village, cars have crashed into a corner grocery store, a home and a beloved local diner. In Cuyahoga County, 19 people died of drug overdoses in one recent 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 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.
A decade ago, during the foreclosure crisis, parts of Mr. Brancatelli’s ward were among the hardest-hit places in the country, but more people 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 spreads in small gatherings, those supports are not there.
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.
At University Settlement, a 94-year-old social service institution in Slavic Village, there used to be a weekly sit-down dinner for anyone in the community. This has changed to takeout. 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,” said Earl Pike, the executive director of University Settlement. “It’s beginning to feel a little ‘Mad Max’-y.”