You look into their eyes, and hatred, anger, and fear stare back at you.
No, you’re not on a battlefield. You’re in an American city council meeting, trying to convince local politicians that building a 55-unit permanent supportive housing apartment building would be positive for the neighborhood.
But it is a tough sell.
Mothers are terrified that the program will fill their neighborhood with sex offenders. Young couples who just purchased homes are afraid their investment will be lost because “those homeless people” will lower property values.
Speaker after speaker tells their elected officials that an apartment building filled with people who were homeless will ruin the neighborhood.
“Not in my backyard!” they shout.
As the developer of the building, you sometimes wonder what you’ve gotten yourself into when 100 angry people are all shouting at you. All you did was find a piece of property where your housing development would be economically viable.
Cobbling together all those complicated public funding sources was difficult enough, but convincing the neighborhood to approve your development is a truly hellish endeavor.
“We think your building is a worthwhile project,” says a local politician, “but I just don’t think it fits in this neighborhood.” It’s the typical comment just before they pound the final nail into your project’s coffin.
There’s got to be a better way to develop supportive housing. Especially when this country has touted supportive housing as the solution to ending homelessness.
“Housing First” is the answer. Right?
Over the past couple of years, local communities have approached PATH looking for ways to reduce homelessness in their neighborhoods.
They are not seeking how to start up a homeless shelter, or even how to build supportive housing. They want to know how to address their homelessness problem.
We, the local homeless agency, propose practical solutions that include street outreach, interim housing, rapid re-housing, and building permanent supportive housing apartments.
Community leaders, skeptical at first, ask how these programs reduce homelessness.
We tell them that we believe homeless programs in a particular neighborhood should prioritize helping the people who are in that neighborhood. Outreach, services, and housing should be designed so that the local neighborhood benefits.
It makes sense.
Ten-year plans (to end homelessness) were great for coordinating regional programs and encouraging more resources for a region. But how does a city move 50 people who are homeless out of a public park? How do they clean the streets in a business district when a large group of people call those sidewalks home?
Building that 55-unit apartment building for people experiencing homelessness is important, but we need to do more. A housing developer develops housing. They cannot provide the services that help people stay off the streets.
A homeless agency can.
If that homeless agency partners with housing developers—or becomes a housing developer—in order to promote a true “Housing First” approach, then perhaps communities will embrace the idea that permanent supportive housing is good for their neighborhood.
And maybe that city council meeting where residents fight against developers will become a thing of the past.