NIMBYism: Why Communities Are So Scared of Helping the Homeless
All this week, End Homelessness is highlighting the negative policies of various cities and the perceptions of their residents when it comes to coexisting with people struggling with homelessness. All too often, the consensus is simply, “NIMBY,” or “not in my backyard.”
Never mind that the entire concept of crack babies has been largely discredited as media hysteria. Never mind that people who have just moved out of homelessness are actually very motivated not to vandalize their new residences. Never mind that residents of homeless programs are generally thrilled to move away from drug dealers and would do anything they could to avoid their children being used as “drug mules.”
As the director and staff at the Union Rescue Mission in Los Angeles have found out in recent years, facts and logic generally do little to calm the hysteria that sweeps some communities when a nonprofit wants to open a program in “their” neighborhood. Hope Gardens, a transitional residence for young mothers and children from Skid Row, fought a long, hard battle to win the right to operate in Sylmar, California, an exclusive suburb. Misguided arguments from community members included the ideas that homelessness would “spread” in their community, and that the young children and their mothers would vandalize their homes, as well as tried and true concerns about property values dropping. Their protest tactics included chaining themselves to fences outside the program. That was the lead up to the center’s 2007 opening. Fast forward to last month, when the shelter was in danger of closing and it received almost $4 million in donations from 5,000 donors to enable it stay open.
Would you welcome a homeless shelter to your “backyard”?Yes. Housing the homeless helps people and the community.
Probably. I think my neighborhood is big enough for all of us.
It depends. I’d want to rule out other locations first.
No. I have concerns about safety and property values.
NIMBYism, or the “not in my backyard” complaint, is actually a clash of two very fundamental philosophies that play out across our country every day: individualism vs. social collectivism. The American strain of individualism includes privacy concerns, property rights, love of the free market and the Puritan work ethic (which has an ugly flip side that says if you’re struggling it must be your fault). The tenets of social collectivism includes the ideas that the needs of the many are worth individual sacrifices and that we must help those that can not help themselves. This may sound familiar to those of you of the Judeo-Christian persuasion.
As in all debates, there may be some credence to opposing points of view. But even though arguments that distant, isolated homeless services do not always serve urban areas well may indeed be valid, generally those arguments are contained within a laundry list of other concerns that have far more to do with self-interest.
The real issue about NIMBYism is that it is not truly in anyone’s self interest. Nonprofits are forced to spend a lot of money and time fighting these battles, detracting from their ability to serve their clients well. And even the most adamant proponent of NIMBYism might have to admit that nonprofits have evolved into dealing with social problems that government, family and communities used to address more informally.
I recently attended a national conference on ending homelessness. In each workshop I attended (and I went to as many as I possibly could) questions came up about NIMBYism and how to address it effectively. Community leaders told of being accosted and cursed in their neighborhoods, in front of their children, just for trying to make a difference.
Well, my first reaction to hearing that was to think — ”what the *&@% has this world come to?” — but when researching this story, I have come to the conclusion that it is more important for us to have a dialogue about this and to share the strategies that have been effective to combat this pervasive fear and unfounded hatred.
Instead of struggling in isolation, getting personally blamed and attacked for having the courage to address tremendously huge social problems, spending our precious time and money in protracted battles — let’s share … share the stories, share strategies, share the outrage. Maybe sharing the spark of outrage is what we need, as the campfires of tent cities are spreading across the nation.
Photo credit: Vali…