When a Local Homeless Debate Goes Viral

By | Apr 23, 2012

When homelessness touches a community, polarized stakeholder camps battle with each other like it is a high-stakes presidential campaign.

The businesses and homeowners admonish local politicians by threatening to withdraw their financial campaign support, while advocates for the homeless use their vote-getting potential to insinuate they will support a leader who sympathizes with their cause to protect people on the streets.

Local elected officials and non-government organizations are caught in the messy middle.

Take Venice, California, for example. This Los Angeles westside neighborhood sits next to the Pacific Ocean and has roots in its eclectic, bohemian community where its ocean boardwalk is famous for tattoo artists and bizarre knife swallowing daredevils. Nestled in this tourist attraction has always been people sleeping on the sand or in their rundown VW beach vans.

So when Southern Californians figured out that Venice was one of the last coastal neighborhoods affordable enough that they didn’t have to sell their youngest child, the inexpensive beach cottages became gentrified residential estates.

And so, the battle for the streets began in earnest.

Imagine investing a million dollars into your dream house near the beach, only to discover an encampment of homeless neighbors squatting in the alley near your home. Although you compassionately support social services in your community, you call the police and your local representative to complain about the loud noise at night, and the remnants of trash in the morning.

You are told that their homelessness is not a crime, and unfortunately they have the right to be there. So you become the newest neighbor to fight to protect your streets.

It used to be the battles between property owners and homeless advocates occurred in the chambers of city councils. But with elected officials struggling to find Solomonic solutions to the problem of extreme poverty colliding with wealth, property owners are turning to other tactics.

Their logic is simple, albeit controversial – If you, advocates for the homeless, support homeless people’s rights to camp out in front of my house, then why don’t you let them camp out in front of your house?

And so, the online battle began.

Property owners created their own blogs, and listed the names, addresses, and phone numbers of key community leaders who support homeless people’s rights to live near their homes. If you are going to live on the streets, they say, go live near the people who advocate for you. This list included neighborhood leaders, homeless advocates, and even the Mayor of Los Angeles. They call the list a  “Westside Guide to Safe Camping Locations for the Homeless.”

Advocates are furious. They call these property owners “bum-haters” who are bashing privacy rights.

Is posting addresses of homeless supporters  a form of online bullying? Sort of like a group of teenagers bullying a peer on Facebook?

It seems to me if stakeholders, on both sides of the homelessness debate, are going to use online tools to promote an agenda to rid the community of homelessness, they should promote ways to link their homeless neighbors with access to permanent housing.

That, to me, is the Solomonic solution.

Photo credit: Zach Klein