By David Gorn.
On a bright recent morning, Van Thomas was holding forth from his front porch in Central Los Angeles, alongside his mixed-breed dog, Princess.
“I’ve been a part of this neighborhood for 45 years,” he said. “I grew up playing ball across the street.”
Thomas has seen a world of change sweep through the area over the years, the latest occurring in a small, century-old complex of buildings right next door. A health-care center is opening there for as many as 62 people newly released from the hospital, all of them homeless, many of them struggling to recover from drug addiction.
And Thomas says he’s happy about it.
“This facility has been everything from a boys’ home to, well, you don’t want to know,” he says with a smile, then cocks his thumb toward the property. “I’ve seen a lot of positive things from this project, though….I give the thumbs-up on this program. I’m looking forward to it.”
Other neighbors voiced similar support. A few still have let’s-wait-and-see reservations. But more than a dozen have pitched in on demolition, window installation, painting and other tasks. Organizers cultivated their support with community meetings, a newsletter and volunteer work weekends—outreach intended to combat NIMBY-ism, the Not-In-My-Backyard syndrome that frequently block efforts throughout California to shelter those without a place to live.
“There are enough spaces in Los Angeles to house every single person on the street, yet we’re making very little progress, and it’s NIMBY that’s holding that back,” said Kelly Bruno, CEO of the National Health Foundation, the Los Angeles-based nonprofit that’s renovating the site. “So we handle that through projects like this.”
With housing shortages and homelessness at crisis levels in California, recent state policy changes to address them may take years to yield widespread improvement. And policy-makers acknowledge that no matter how much money they approve to house people, progress still requires the defusing of community tensions.
According to data from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, there are 134,000 homeless people in California. Advocates say those are just the visibly homeless, that the actual number is much higher. Many local governments are under court order to take steps to house homeless people, but often those efforts have been undermined by community opposition.
Residents in many places bristle at the notion of homeless people moving in. They worry about safety, and about property values declining. They worry about noise, drugs, litter, parking and general neighborhood disruption.
So in downtown Los Angeles, just half a mile from the University of Southern California campus, how did Bruno’s group turn that dynamic on its head?
“We listened,” Bruno said. “Look, the neighbors know what they want in their community. They want a good neighbor they can trust. We listened and looked into addressing every concern they had.”
The most effective way to expand services for the homeless, Bruno said, is to persuade communities to see housing projects as contributions to—rather than drains on—their neighborhoods. Her foundation already had city permission to convert the site and could have simply proceeded. But involving residents isn’t just nice, Bruno said—it works.
For example, in one of the first community forums on the project, neighbors said they didn’t want to lose parking spaces once the new residents and employees started showing up.
“It might sound like a small thing, but it wasn’t small for the neighbors,” Bruno said. “We committed to the neighborhood (that) we wouldn’t take any street parking.” Instead, her organization leased space in a church parking lot nearby.
Safety concerns were a bigger lift, Bruno said, that involved changing residents’ point of view—helping them see the homeless as people, rather than as homeless people. Bruno took neighbors on tours of the facility, held coffee-and-doughnuts community gatherings, hired local workers and patronized local businesses. She regularly made small talk with people on the street and once jumped a neighbor’s car battery.
Some residents are still wary of what’s coming, Bruno acknowledged. This is a community that’s not used to being heard, she said. But little things such as replacing the prison-like fence with a new, decorative one, one neighbor said, have gone a long way toward convincing locals of the foundation’s good intentions.
“We are not planning to be here just today,” Bruno said. “We’re planning to be here 10 years, and we’re going to reap that benefit for years.”
Smaller projects have an advantage, according to Larry Haynes, executive director of Mercy House, a nonprofit homeless advocacy group in Orange County. Public dialogue always takes time, he said, and when officials are under court deadlines, lengthy community outreach efforts are considered a luxury they can’t afford.
But even with such pressures, there are ways to build local trust, Haynes said. Residents want to know immediately, for instance, who’s in charge of a project so they can get reliable information.
“You have to name the operator of the program as soon as you can,” Haynes said. “The more definitive you can be, the better. Because people come in asking questions, they’re emotional and frustrated, and if you can’t answer them, it heightens distrust. Answering people, that’s what breeds trust.”
That strikes a chord with Bruno, who neighbors said is frequently at the new site to answer questions. Six months after the project broke ground, she is on a first-name basis with a number of the neighbors, who greet her as they walk along the sidewalk outside the facility.
Half a dozen of them are helping to plan the Oct. 12 block party that will mark its grand opening as the Pico Union Recuperative Care Center.
For Van Thomas, feeling heard and included has allowed him to view the project next door in a different way, for a change.
“They’re helping people who just came out of the hospital and who don’t have a place to stay yet,” he said. “And that seems to me a pretty positive thing. If I can support that, well, that’s adding something positive, too.”