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When The Neighborhood Doesn't Want It

by Linda Ostreicher, Feb 01, 2002
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Although there are relatively few backyards in New York City, residents defend their territory as fiercely as any other Americans against unwanted new facilities. This syndrome is frequently called "Not In My Back Yard," and it has helped to shape the face of social service delivery in ways that project opponents could not anticipate.

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What might the map of social service facilities in the city look like if neighborhood reactions were not a factor?

MORE SERVICES FOR UNWELCOME CLIENTS

The most obvious change would be a lot more housing and services aimed at clients who are not generally welcomed by their neighbors: the homeless, drug addicts, people with developmental disabilities, people with AIDS/HIV, ex-prisoners, mentally ill people, foster children, people on welfare.the list embodies some of the most pervasive urban fears. Much fear is based on inaccurate assumptions: that developmental disabilities are the same as mental illness, and that the mentally ill are more violent than the rest of us; that foster children are also juvenile delinquents; that all homeless people are visibly different from people with homes; and that drug users and alcoholics are a threat even when they are on the wagon.

An agency trying to open a group home or treatment program for people bearing one of these labels must tactfully court the chosen community and prepare for long delays in obtaining a site. Money for programs can dry up during these delays, and staff time is diverted to meetings, hearings, and the putting-out of public relations fires. According to Brad Lander, Executive Director of the Fifth Avenue Committee in Brooklyn, "Siting is as much a constraint as the cost of land." Despite the organization's long history of creating successful low-income housing in the neighborhood, nearby residents object to its plan for a transitional residence for parolees. Much effort went into "outreach, door-knocking, and community meetings" to win the local Community Board's approval for the project.

Staten Island's homeless population relies heavily on Project Hospitality, which provides food, shelter and supportive services. Its Executive Director, Reverend Terry Troia, concedes that over the years there have been "a lot of opportunities we've had to let go by," because it takes so long to get sites approved. She recalls a day care center for children of homeless and other low-income families as a project that was blocked for lack of a site.

It's hard enough to find a place to locate a new facility even when funds to pay for it are available. However, unwanted clients are often unsympathetic figures for advocates to champion to government decision-makers. No matter how much it would help the rest of us, making life easier for drug addicts and ex-convicts is not a priority for many voters. Local politicians rarely move against the wishes of their most vocal constituents, so unwanted social services have little leverage with elected officials in the competition for member item funds, or even for representation in the overall budget process of their legitimate needs.

MORE FACILITIES WOULD BE THE RIGHT SIZE

Small group homes and other sites would provide as much of the supply as was necessary to have the best possible system. Centralized settings with high capacity would not offer the advantage of decreasing the number of siting battles, but would be chosen only when centralization was needed.

Small group homes, and individual apartments in regular buildings, are among the most promising solutions to a variety of needs. They allow clients to live among diverse neighbors and eliminate the institutional feel of larger homes. For foster children, they more closely resemble a family; for adults with developmental disabilities or mental illness, they allow more independence. Unfortunately, like services for homeless people, the supply of group homes is nowhere near the demand for them.

Service providers might use more of these smaller sites if they did not arouse nearly as much controversy as larger ones. A reporter for the Riverdale Press observed bitter opposition, at a Bronx Community Board 11 meeting, to an apartment proposed to house eight developmentally disabled people under 24-hour supervision. The Fifth Avenue Committee's residence for parolees will house only ten people, but Lander recognizes that, "If we had not been able to get Community Board approval, the project would have been dead in the water because the city wouldn't have given us control of the building lot."

SERVICES WOULD BE WHERE CLIENTS NEED THEM TO BE

Service providers could look for the best building for their programs, in the location that was most convenient for their clients. Now they look for buildings where their clients can blend into the flow of other users, like hospitals, or where the surrounding community would prefer nearly any use to an existing misuse.

Liz Abzug, a spokesperson for Housing and Services, Inc., describes that agency's strategy as one of replacing "drug-infested eyesores" with well-run facilities. When Housing and Services, Inc. began managing the Kenmore Hotel on 23rd Street, it had been taken over by the federal government because of drug activities inside it. According to the agency's website, at the height of its criminal career, the Kenmore generated about a thousand calls a year to 911. Now, Abzug estimates that there is only about one such call a month.

However, the supply of boarded-up and decaying city-owned properties may not be inexhaustible. Limiting new facilities to such sites does not necessarily result in ideal locations for service delivery. Social service agencies need many of the same features that urban small business owners look for in a new location: safe streets, good public transportation, and closeness to clients' homes, jobs, or other essential services.

NEIGHBORS WOULD HAVE LESS INFLUENCE ON PROGRAM DESIGN

Neighborhood opposition can sometimes improve services. Communities do not like to see people loitering on the street, unless they are drinking cappuccino. This puts pressure on agencies to provide comfortable waiting rooms for appointments, and day treatment programs for those who might otherwise have nowhere to go. Good security practices at homeless shelters make the residents feel safer, as well as the neighbors. The old Kenmore Hotel was notorious for heavy objects being dumped out of its windows at odd times, so Housing Services, Inc. agreed to put in air conditioners in response to community demands -- a benefit to both passers-by and tenants.

Parolees living in the Fifth Avenue Committee's planned transitional housing may benefit from activities intended to reassure skeptical neighbors, such as supervision by case managers and random drug testing. However, some applicants for admission to the residence will not benefit from having to pass a panel including three neighborhood residents. The entire project could fail after a year, when a Community Advisory Board will have the power to shut it down with a 75 percent majority vote.

One way to provide services without needing to open a contested facility is by operating a mobile program out of a van. This is not the chief reason why mobile programs exist: vans are the best way to reach clients who resist going to shelters, soup kitchens, clinics, and other services. While the community may complain that clients hang around a van site before it comes and after it goes, the fact that a van finds clients at a site usually means they are already in the surrounding area. This makes mobile programs more popular with providers, funders, and neighbors than they might otherwise be.

Another type of facility that is usually welcomed, at least initially, is the drop-in center for homeless or mentally ill people. Years ago, when Times Square was still seedy, homelessness was conspicuous in midtown Manhattan. Drop-in centers were opened to attract homeless people out of Grand Central, Penn Station, and the Port Authority terminal, into havens that were open during the day, when most shelters are closed. The drop-in centers may have contributed too much to the transformation of midtown into a safe, clean tourist attraction: they are losing their appeal to area businesses, who now look on them as the source rather than the solution of the problem of homelessness.

FAIR SHARE CRITERIA WOULD WORK

New York City is something of a celebrity in the world of city planning for its "Fair Share Criteria" and facility siting process. As a result of the 1989 revision of the City Charter, there are rules requiring that new facilities for programs run or paid for by the city (unless they are very small) must go through an evaluation by the sponsoring city agency and the Department of City Planning. The effect that the program will have on the proposed neighborhood must be weighed against the value of the site to the users of the new facility.

This approach won an American Planning Association award in 1992, even though few New York communities are pleased with their resulting share of city services. In practice, the criteria are still somewhat subjective and imprecise. Facts uncovered in the Fair Share impact evaluation do not dictate the final decision on a controversial site.

The design of our social service delivery system reflects neighborhood fears of undesirable outsiders. A dramatic example is recorded in the minutes of a March 28, 2001 meeting of Community Board Six in Brooklyn. The Board's Human Service Committee proposed a resolution calling for the city to have separate, decentralized intake systems for homeless single men and women, located in buildings already being used as shelters and intake centers. The resolution also called for more supportive housing and rental assistance as long-term solutions to homelessness.

The proposal was in the tradition of rational planning: it considered the needs of New York City as a single entity, acknowledged that existing shelter and intake sites encounter less red tape than new ones, and spread the benefits and burdens of services around the city by decentralizing them. The resolution was voted down, "on the possibility that it would leave the Park Slope Women's Armory vulnerable to future conversion as an intake center."

Additional Resources:

Linda Ostreicher, a former budget analyst for the New York City Council, is a freelance writer and consultant to nonprofits. She is currently on the staff of Bronx Independent Living Services.


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