When a 22-year-old woman died from a gunshot wound in February, community organizations and faith leaders in Broward County, Florida, responded quickly. The coalition took to the streets in the days following her killing, hoping to prevent further violence. They offered access to mental health support and counseling. And in the weeks after, Faith in Florida, an organization that works to prevent gun violence, organized financial support for the victim’s family.
Pastor Rhonda Thomas, executive director of Faith in Florida, would like to do more: improve access to counselors who look like the community, train new outreach workers and organizers, and provide additional financial and emotional support for victims and their families. But the organization and other community groups it works with lack the funding.
In May 2021, the Biden administration said states and cities could use American Rescue Plan funds for community violence intervention efforts. Thomas hoped the news meant that local officials would help fill the gap. But months of pushing county mayors and city leaders to share ARP funds for this work hasn’t produced results.
“It was just a back and forth,” Thomas said. “It was heartache after heartache.”
While advocates have lauded the ARP for making this funding — potentially the largest sum ever devoted to the cause — available for CVI programs, it wasn’t specifically designated for that purpose. Violence intervention groups had to compete against other causes like COVID-19 mitigation, infrastructure, and law enforcement, and it was largely up to local and state leaders to prioritize spending. Many states and cities put funds — some $2 billion, according to the White House — toward violence intervention, crisis responders, and mental health services. But others did not.
“The funding that was received is not coming down to grassroots organizations,” Thomas said of her experience in Florida. “And other organizations we work with collectively have even smaller chances of getting funding.”
Lawmakers and the Biden administration are hoping to break down the roadblocks Faith in Florida and other community groups have encountered with an unprecedented injection of targeted funding. This year alone, Congress approved an unprecedented $300 million for federal grants specifically to support community violence intervention, including $250 million over the next five years from the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act, which President Joe Biden signed in June. Advocates see in these moves a potential for major change — but they are also pushing the government to ensure that the funding is equitably distributed.
The new funding is part of a broader, ongoing effort to scale CVI and integrate the programs into public safety that includes a national collaborative, which the White House organized in June 2021 to support cities and anti-violence groups.
“Community-based public safety has been around for 30 years,” said Aqeela Sherrills, an adviser to the collaborative and executive director of the Community Based Public Safety Collective, a national CVI advocacy and training organization. “But they’re just now putting real dollars and investment into it.”
Yet federal grants like those funded under the Safer Communities Act present their own challenges for the types of organizations they’re supposed to support. Advocates say community-based groups often lack the technical expertise, cash flow, and personnel to be eligible for federal grants and navigate the process if they do qualify. No matter what area of policy, federal grants are paperwork intensive and recipients are typically required to front the money for grant reimbursement, as an accountability measure. And while some violence prevention organizations are connected to city governments, hospitals, and larger nonprofits with the resources and experience needed to manage federal grants, many are smaller, grassroots nonprofits that may struggle with the process, and often simply don’t have the money to invest up-front.
Faith in Florida, Thomas noted, is larger and better-resourced than many of the community groups it partners with, but the paperwork and compliance requirements have still prevented it from applying for federal grants, she said. Seeking one would require Thomas to hire more staff — not just for the services on the ground, but for the resulting administrative workload.
“I also would have to increase my capacity internally to keep up,” she said.
The first grant application process for Safer Community Act funds, managed by the Department of Justice’s Office of Justice Programs, is expected to open later this year. In the interim, CVI advocates and organizations are preparing for the new money aimed at supporting anti-violence work. Some, including Pastor Michael McBride, a violence prevention activist who has worked to secure federal funding for CVI, have been in talks with the DOJ to ensure access for smaller organizations.
“To see, for the first time, a bipartisan decision to fund community violence intervention — responses to gun violence that do not put at the center law enforcement or punitive responses — is something we all celebrate,” said McBride, who is the executive director of Live Free, which organizes communities affected by gun violence. “But there still are needed structural shifts in how federal dollars will be made available to groups on the ground.”
Biden signed the Safer Communities Act and its $250 million funding into law just months after an omnibus spending bill from March that also contained $50 million in grants to community violence intervention. That grant application process began in April, and the DOJ should notify recipients in the coming weeks. It offers a preview of how the next round of grants is likely to work.
That system set aside about half of its grant awards for community-based organizations to launch new programs or expand existing ones. Other awards will go to city, county, and tribal governments; to organizations that can provide training and back-of-house assistance; and to groups like philanthropies and foundations that can serve as intermediaries for grassroots groups. Intermediaries are expected to partner with and subgrant to smaller organizations that may not have the capacity to apply for grants on their own.
The separate designations mean that community-based groups won’t have to compete against better-resourced local governments for the same grants while still maintaining multiple pathways for funds to get to CVI, said Greg Jackson, executive director of the Community Justice Action Fund, a violence prevention advocacy group.
“In an ideal world, we would want everything to go directly to communities, but the reality is that certain cities don’t have the community infrastructure built out yet to take on this level of grants,” Jackson said.
As much as the grants are about actively getting services out into communities, they’re also about building infrastructure that will allow for community-based public safety programs to grow, hire new staff, and provide new and additional services when more funding becomes available.
There are still improvements that could be made in the upcoming grant process, advocates said, including requirements for geographic diversity, potential waivers for groups that may not be able to front their own money, and additional checks to ensure that the funding will be used by CVI programs with ties to the community. Some advocates, like McBride, warned that without safeguards, law enforcement agencies — which are typically better versed in the federal grant process — could successfully apply for funding that would otherwise go to community groups less experienced with the application system.
“We’re asking the federal government to keep ensuring, number one, that law enforcement cannot jump to the front of the line,” McBride said.
But some risk is unavoidable with any new funding source, Jackson said, and excluding law enforcement agencies entirely would write off some worthy programs.
“We do know that in certain cities, violence intervention programs are directly connected to law enforcement,” Jackson said. “While that may not be preferable, we also know that’s the reality.”
Jackson and the Community Justice Action Fund have also been working with the DOJ to ensure peer review boards made up of people who have experience in CVI work review the programs that receive grant funding and ensure that the grants aren’t being misused.
Regardless of the safeguards put in place, CVI programs are still going to be competing for a finite amount of funding. The $250 million from the Safer Communities Act, along with the $50 million in funding from the omnibus bill, is still far short of the $5 billion in funding for community violence intervention that Biden pushed for in his Build Back Better agenda, which died in the U.S. Senate.
“It’s unprecedented, but it’s nowhere near the need,” Jackson said. “It’s still a small investment into the larger resource needs that we know our communities have.”
The Break the Cycle of Violence Act, a proposal that would provide $5 billion over eight years, is stalled in the U.S. Senate. But advocates remain dedicated to the mission, and will continue to push for more plentiful, and more equitably distributed, resources.
“Our vision is that community-based public safety will become a complimentary strategy to policing in this country, shifting the narrative around public safety forever,” Sherrills said. “We put entirely too much pressure on our cops to have to be everything in communities. It’s just impossible. It’s critical that we invest now.”
Thomas said that Faith in Florida is still waiting for the grant announcement before deciding it will be able to apply. She’s cautiously optimistic this might be their chance.
“It’s still very new, and we’re still talking about it,” Thomas said. “We’re trying to rally together on how to approach it.”