Cleveland City Hall sits at the intersection of Lakeside Avenue and East Sixth Street.
Cleveland City Council announced Monday that $33 million worth of medical debt held by 16,000 Cleveland residents was canceled by RIP Medical Debt, the national nonprofit that buys patients’ debt from hospitals at a steep discount. Credit: Jeff Haynes / Signal Cleveland

Cleveland City Council on Monday threw a lifeline to an anti-violence group that had been working for the city for months without a contract. 

Peacemakers Alliance sends outreach workers, known as violence interrupters, to the trauma centers at the MetroHealth System and University Hospitals to comfort families and prevent retaliation after shootings. 

Members of Mayor Justin Bibb’s administration told council’s finance committee that the group’s contract with the city expired last May. Officials believed they had a contract extension in hand – only to discover last fall that it hadn’t gone to council for approval, Community Relations Board Director Angela Shute-Woodson said.  

Finance Director Ahmed Abonamah told council that he learned of the lapse on Thursday and asked to have the contract approved before budget hearings commanded City Hall’s attention. Peacemakers Alliance “can’t go on any longer” without payment from the city, he said. 

“Look, mistakes were made on our side. We’ll not hide behind that,” he said. “But the fact of the matter is, we have a partner, a good community partner, who acted in good faith over the last several months, and we are in a position now where we can reward that good faith by making them whole.” 

Council agreed to hurry the $300,000 contract through, introducing and passing the legislation at Monday night’s meeting. Several finance committee members said the unusual step was called for because the Peacemakers Alliance continued to do important work – even without a contract. 

“If they quit, then what? You think we’ve got problems now; we’re really going to have problems,” Ward 10 Council Member Anthony Hairston said. “It’s unfair to this group that they have continued to do the work even when short staffed, and that hasn’t stopped them. They continue to go out on the streets, they continue to sleep inside of these hospitals throughout the nights, comforting families, trying to quell these issues that are brewing.”

Cleveland has seen a violent start to the year, with 16 homicides recorded in January, according to police statistics. 

The administration’s error underscored the slowness of Cleveland’s contracting process. Individual departments approve invoices before passing them to the Finance Department. That means the city’s financial office is the last to know when a contractor is waiting for payment.

“We find ourselves oftentimes in a position where someone has an invoice that hasn’t been paid. They call us; we have no idea that an invoice even exists, because it is with the department that was receiving the services,” Abonamah said. 

The city funding will pay for two staffers in the hospitals plus a street outreach team, Peacemakers Alliance Executive Director Myesha Watkins said. 

Michael Polensek, the Ward 8 council member who chairs the safety committee, said he planned to bring all of Cleveland’s violence interruption groups to the table for a hearing. He said he would ask during budget hearings whether the Bibb administration plans to fund more violence interrupters, given the difficulty in hiring police officers

“As we look at the ongoing issue we’re having with police recruitment and the numbers working in the police department,” he said, “violence interrupters and peacekeepers therefore become very important.”

Government Reporter (he/him)
Nick joins us from the world of public radio. He has more than a decade experience covering politics and government in Cleveland and Cuyahoga County. In 2021, he produced and hosted "After Jackson: Cleveland's Next Mayor," an Ideastream Public Media podcast on the Cleveland mayoral race. He has also covered breaking news, opioid lawsuits and elections nationally for NPR.