Roberts: NIMBY is really PMBY

    California leaders are finally investing in more affordable and supportive housing, the proven solution to dealing with our housing affordability and homelessness crises.

    Funding initiatives for homeless programs and housing throughout California — Measure A in Santa Clara County and California state HEAP (Homeless Emergency Aid Program) program — are making securing sufficient capital funds less of an issue for developing new supportive housing facilities.

    It is because of this investment that the main issue facing developments today is finding neighborhoods that will allow new shelters, services or permanent housing.

    In the past decade I have participated in countless community meetings proposing new homeless services facilities or supportive housing developments in specific neighborhoods. The community responses to our presentations have varied dramatically from “yes, we really need housing in our community” to “you will never build in our neighborhood.”

    I remember years ago, an intern who was participating in one of our community engagement efforts asked me, “Why is it so hard to help people in need?” I remember my response.

    “Convincing neighbors to let us build is part of the work of addressing homelessness.”

    So, what is the solution?

    For those of us in the trenches of creating new programs and housing, we present tactical answers. For example, it’s more cost-effective to place a homeless person in a home rather than leaving them on the street. We present statistics that show why such programs and housing are successful and better for the community overall.

    But if neighbors are worried about the cleanliness of their streets, the values of their property, and their safety, no tactical answer alone will allay their fears.

    So here is our approach toward working with neighborhoods:

    Listen, Listen, Listen. In a community meeting, my instinct is to defend, defend, defend. But although meetings might appear to be an intellectual debate, the discussion is really about our hearts, listening to what people are feeling and what they are passionate about.

    It is not Us versus Them. When we were building a 14-story, 225 units/beds development in a downtown California city, I spent nine months talking with community groups, listening to their fears. I used to share with them how I too worried about my children walking to and from school. I worried that they would have to walk over people sleeping on the streets, and how they might encounter someone who might harm them. I told them that my fears are just like theirs. And that the solution is to get people off the streets and into homes.

    All Politics and Homeless Issues is Local. A former Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives coined the saying, “All politics is local.” In siting homeless housing, I would alter that saying: “All homeless issues are local.” Neighbors are more concerned about the five people living in their park, or the ten RVs parked near their businesses, rather than the 5,000 or 50,000 people who are homeless in the region. People don’t care whether supportive housing worked in Timbuktu, they care how our proposed development will help their neighborhood.

    Get to Know Us. If we are building a new building in a new neighborhood, then we will become their new neighbors. So, our neighbors want to know who we are, how we will run programs and how we will protect their neighborhood.

    Propose Safety Solutions. The safety of the neighborhood is paramount. We propose leading neighborhood watch groups or neighborhood advisory committees (a group of neighbors — critics included — who regularly discuss local neighborhood issues) and coordination with the local police.

    Talk is Cheap. Put it in Writing. Neighbors want an agreed upon program and operations plan that works toward keeping the neighborhood safe. This includes a neighborhood covenant.

    Build Beautiful Buildings. Our developments are not designed like the old 1960s concrete block housing projects. Instead, our buildings are designed better than anything else on the block. It is part of our commitment to making the neighborhood better.

    Be Factual and Accountable. People tend to exaggerate, “We have no homeless people in our neighborhood, you will just become a magnet!” Many times, we (sometimes with the local police) will perform a neighborhood homeless count that documents on a map how many and where people are on the streets. In some communities we continue monthly neighborhood homeless counts so that our neighbors know that we are committed and accountable to addressing local homelessness.

    Most People Are not NIMBYs. Most people support services and housing for people who are homeless. When I hear, “I support your work, but our neighborhood is the wrong place,” I don’t label that response a NIMBY comment. Most people want to help people who are homeless.

    In my experience, the number one issue in a neighborhood is the safety and quality of life of their neighborhood. People are not NIMBY, they are PMBY — Protect My Backyard!

    San José Spotlight columnist Joel John Roberts is the CEO of PATH, a statewide homeless services and housing development agency that provides services and housing in San José. Joel is also a Board member of Silicon Valley’s Destination: Home. His columns appear every fourth Monday of the month.

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