Thursday, July 18, 2024

Tony Clark, cofounder and co-president of My Brother’s Keeper Cambridge, speaks April 12, 2022, at an event in The Port neighborhood of Cambridge. (Photo: Marc Levy)

It’s been more than two years since city councillors first endorsed the Cambridge Holistic Emergency Alternative Response Team, a grassroots alternative to police that grew out of the response to the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer. Yet the organization still has no contract for city financial support, and the reason wasn’t clear after a Nov. 15 meeting of the council’s Public Safety committee intended to examine the issue. Adding to Heart supporters’ frustration, City Manager Yi-An Huang declined at the last minute to come to the committee meeting and to make available officials of the city’s own Community Safety Department – city government’s alternative response agency.

The department has $1.5 million to distribute to community organizations such as Heart but says the organization has not produced a written contract proposal – which Heart disputes. Meanwhile, it turns out that another homegrown group, My Brother’s Keeper, has succeeded in winning a contract for a program in conjunction with police.

City spokesperson Jeremy Warnick said My Brother’s Keeper, part of a nationwide program established by former President Barack Obama to support boys and young men of color after the death of Trayvon Martin, is receiving $250,000 to run programs for young people this past summer and this fall. The organization offered summer workshops on post-high-school planning, mental health coaching and financial education during the summer and is running an empowerment and parenting journey program for youths this fall, he said.

A press release from the city on the programs said the Community Safety Department and the Police Department were “partnering” with My Brother’s Keeper to offer the services. Warnick said the police department provided extra staff that included civilians and members of the department’s family and social justice section “who frequently work with young adults in the community.”

As for Heart, the city gave the organization $300,000 in federal pandemic aid funds in June. But the federal money “is a special, emergency funding mechanism and we need a regular contract for services,” Heart co-director Corinne Espinoza said in an email.

Public Safety Committee head Quinton Zondervan, a Heart supporter, said he was “disappointed that [Huang] has chosen not to engage in this hearing” and added that “I look forward to continuing to engage with him. I’m optimistic that we will get to a place where Heart is fully supported by the city as they deserve to be and as the council has asked for several times.”

Huang’s message to Zondervan, which came 30 minutes before the committee meeting was to start, said there were no “major Community Safety updates” and the department “is in a very busy period of training, developing protocols and policies, building an IT system and preparing for a 2024 go‐live for when civilian responders are taking 911 emergency calls.”

Huang said Heart had drawn down $30,000 of its federal Covid relief funds and had requested contract changes to enable flexibility, which the city had agreed to. As for a contract for city money, he said that community safety director Liz Speakman “has had many conversations with Heart regarding a potential contract for services including seven meetings this year, phone calls and internal city meetings. We have entered into these conversations with a desire to develop a partnership which could deepen over time but at this point, despite many discussions and back‐and‐forth, we have not yet agreed to or received a formal proposal and budget.”

Espinoza, though, described a process in which Heart fulfilled one request after another from Speakman, only to receive a new request. She said Speakman had told Heart to “send a list of services and a number”; then, after the organization did so, she asked for a “budget.” Espinoza said Heart then discussed a budget in a Zoom meeting with Speakman, and subsequently Speakman advised Heart to talk to another nonprofit group with a city contract to find out how to prepare a contract proposal.

Although “some people in the community thought that was disrespectful,” Espinoza said, Heart talked to several nonprofits and showed its submission to at least one of them. That group told Speakman about the interaction and Speakman then asked Heart to show the same proposal to Community Safety, Espinoza said. “It was the same one we had already sent her,” she said.

Heart’s quest for a contract changed focus during the process, which could have delayed a decision. It initially centered on getting $1 million to conduct job training for 10 residents who could then be hired by Heart or the city, Espinoza said.

“But by the time we got down to the nitty-gritty, we realized that contract would have to be completed by June 3, 2023, which was impossible at that point,” she said. So we went back to the drawing board, we proposed something more modest. We did what Ms. Speakman asked, which was to send the proposed services and a number.”

Whether or not the city agrees to a contract, Heart has raised $1.2 million in grants, donations and government aid and will continue gearing up to establish a telephone number for urgent calls within the next several months, then a mobile service such as a van, Espinoza said. So far in 2023 the organization has helped 78 households and reached more than 1,170 people with mutual aid and outreach events, she said.

Councillors Marc McGovern and Patty Nolan pressed Espinoza to explain why the organization still does not have a telephone number available to the public. “How are people reaching you?” McGovern asked.

Espinoza said Heart’s trained responders and managers have ties in the communities the organization serves and residents learn about it through word of mouth. Heart’s website also has an email address as contact information.

Espinoza said the organization isn’t yet prepared to answer emergency phone calls … we do have a telephone, we have a lot of telephones,” she said, referring to staff’s personal phones. “But we don’t publicize our number because we’re not ready yet. We want to wait until we’re 100 percent ready to pick up that phone and respond the way people expect us.”

McGovern pointed out that $270,000 of federal funds from the American Rescue Plan Act remain unspent. He suggested that Heart start with a small request to the city. “Even if you can settle on one or two things to really just get that relationship solidified, I think that would be an important initial step. And I hope we manage to do that soon,” he said.