Last week, I was at my umpteenth community meeting in order to promote a new building that would house people who experience homelessness. I am probably approaching my hundredth meeting.
As I present the benefits of housing people who are homeless, I always feel like a politician, salesman, advocate, economist, architect, case manager, all at the same time.
I begin with: “This building will get people off the streets.” “Permanent housing is much more cost effective than keeping people languishing on the streets.” “The building is designed better than any other façade in the neighborhood.”
To date, we have never had a proposed building turned down. However, the bruises from past community battles still hurt. The misconceptions, the attacks, and the miseducation start as soon as a community gets word that a “homeless program wants to move in.”Attack newsletters are mailed out, websites set up, and emails are blasted out to the neighbors in order to garner “the troops” to fight against a facility that, in my opinion, would actually better the quality of neighborhood life.
In every community meeting, whether it is a handful of people or a full auditorium, there is at least one Mr. Rogers. He is the local neighbor who has lived in the community for decades.
Rogers remembers when kids could freely play on the sidewalks without fear of some stranger attacking them. He reminisces of the days when he used to call the police because some unknown wanderer was on the street, and law enforcement could readily shoo that person away.
Now, Rogers has seen the increase of homelessness in his neighborhood, and blames the crisis squarely on the shoulders of homeless agencies.
In every community meeting, there is a Mr. Rogers who stands up, without being called on, to shout his objections.
It usually starts this way: “I respect your work and compassion for these homeless people,” he begins. And then there is the “but”. “But your building does not belong in this neighborhood. In my neighborhood.”
And then it is downhill from there: “These people are drug dealers, rapists, and thieves. They are terrorizing our neighborhood.”
And then there is the final argument: “And, if you build this center, they will come. It will attract every homeless person in the neighborhood, in the city, in the county, in the whole country, to flock to your center, and set up their tents on our streets. On my streets.”
The magnet effect. I hear it in every community meeting. I blame this perception on the old days when homeless services were set up. When communities pigeon-holed homeless agencies in one neighborhood – think Skid Row – and every city in the region would send their homeless clients to that area.
This designated area was not a magnet. It was a dumping ground.
So, I try to explain to Mr. Rogers that some people on the streets actually would rather not even go to homeless services. They would rather be on the streets or in their own permanent homes.
Or that getting people off the streets and into housing is much more beneficial than doing nothing.
I explain that people who are homeless typically stay in their own neighborhoods because they feel safer in familiar surroundings. Some people have actually paid rent and been a member of the community for years – until they lost their job and found themselves homeless on the very corner where they used to get coffee and groceries. They won’t travel miles away to a new neighborhood.
I spell out the methodical solution to homelessness is for every community to provide enough affordable and supportive housing and services for their impoverished population, including the community we are proposing to build in.
Typically, my arguments for building housing and services for people who are homeless do not change Mr. Rogers’ entrenched opinion.
But many times, Mr. Rogers’ judgements don’t change until after the building is built, and the neighborhood has not turned into a magnet. In the heat of a community meeting, however, no one is willing to wait until that time. So the arguments continue.