NIMBY Is Really FIMBY – Fear in My Backyard

By | May 26, 2010

I feel as if I’ve been working on a political campaign trail. These past two months consisted of endless public meetings, regular strategy sessions, and numerous conference calls. I’ve endured train rides, hotel rooms, Power Point presentations, and one-on-one lunches.

I’ve shaken hands with hundreds of people. There’s a stack of their business cards sitting on my desk that I wish had pictures on them. I have trouble linking names with faces, especially when I’m sitting in a public meeting in a city that was more a vacation spot for me than a business locale.

During this campaign, however, the candidate is “homeless people,” the group as a whole, that is. Specifically, I’ve been on a crusade to build a facility to house homeless persons in the downtown area of a major American city, San Diego. This beautiful downtown metropolis on the Pacific Ocean struggles with homelessness, like almost every other city in our country.

Opinions, Opinions

Once the local newspaper announced our plans, everyone was out in full force giving their public opinions:

“I like your project, but I don’t like the location,” said a neighbor.

“It doesn’t have enough shelter beds for the thousands of homeless people on our streets,” proclaimed local homeless advocates.

“Too many shelter beds,” responded local businesses.

“It’s going to become a magnet for the whole region!”

Supporters of this proposed new center describe this campaign as a battle. With team leaders in different cities, our war room consists of virtual conference calls and emails.

The tactic of fear is powerful. We see this in political campaigns all of the time. So why are we surprised when some community members respond to a new homeless center with similar fearful tactics?

“This center will invite sexual offenders and violent criminals into our neighborhood.”

No one wants that. Fear can be convincing. Would I want a sexual offender or some violent ex-con living across the street from my home or place of work?

A Battle or a Marketing Campaign?

Personally, I don’t see this as combat. I see this as an educational crusade.

We all long for that 1950s pristine neighborhood depicted in the old television sitcom, “Father Knows Best”, where the homes were perfect, sidewalks clear, and the only fear in the neighborhood was when a child’s ball rolled into ongoing traffic.

But this is 2010. We can wish for perfect neighborhoods that might look like a 1950s sitcom, but the reality is today’s neighborhoods are more like Wisteria Lane on TV’s “Desperate Housewives”, where murder, deceit, and crime lurk behind those perfect residential facades.

Our society today, no matter where we live, is just not as ideal as it was sixty years ago. So I’m not surprised when people are fearful of a center that will serve “strangers,” people with unknown backgrounds.

The goal of this campaign is to explain to wary neighbors that homeless services is not like it was thirty years ago. We want to make sure we help hurting people, along with ensuring that the surrounding neighborhood is clean and safe. In other words: no loitering, no littering, no long lines of homeless people around the block.

It’s a hard sell. Most people still possess images of Skid Row when thinking of homeless services. No one wants that in their back yard. But what if studies show that a new type of homeless center actually reduces homelessness in the surrounding neighborhood? It’s true. Agencies that implement a housing first strategy, where they place people directly into permanent housing, actually decrease street homelessness.

The New York Times recently published an article trumpeting this approach in Times Square, where city officials proclaim there is only one homeless person left in this neighborhood. There was no migration of other homeless persons into this area after this world-renowned entertainment district housed their homeless population.

No fear with that.

That’s our campaign message. We will take the 300 homeless people living within blocks of the center, and house them permanently. Interpretation: no more homelessness in the nearby neighborhood.

With so many fearful opinion pieces and community questions, we just have to stay on message. Our goal is to take homeless people off the streets.

Otherwise, the surrounding neighborhood will continue to have homeless people, with their unchecked, unknown backgrounds, sprawling all over the streets.

Now to me, that is fearful.

Photo credit: chernobylbob