When well meaning people gather to try to solve an important social issue

This entry was contributed by on February 2nd, 2017 at 9:00 am and is filed under , , , , , , .
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When well meaning people gather to try to solve an important social issue, sometimes the people policy is aimed to assist are lost sight of in the conversations.

In a land far, far away, a place you’ve never heard of, a group of eight people gathered in a conference room to address the needs of the homeless community. The group was comprised of city and county officials, politicians and a reporter. The reporter was me. The group, with varied experience with the issue talked about the need of emergency shelter, transitional housing and permanent affordable housing.

The city doesn’t have a huge problem with homelessness as of yet, but economic development strategies carried out by city officials at the direction of city politicians will add growth to the city in the years to come and could upgrade the “small” problem to a full blown disaster.

The meeting lasted for over an hour and highlighted that there isn’t a good handle on how big the problem actually is and pointed to a larger meeting at a later date with organizational leader that in any way touches the issue. It was positive, dare I say, optimistic.

It didn’t take but 30 minutes for that optimism to take a header off of the the city’s six story, downtown hotel. My phone rang, it was someone from the meeting upset with something someone else said in the meeting and believed it was used as an intentional slight. Solid case of personality differences? Sure. Fundamental disagreement in appropriate outreach? Not quite yet…we will get there.

The next task force meeting was on the heels of an emergency city workshop where a building was condemned displacing around 18 people of lower income and homeless. The building, purchased by a local business owner and bequeathed to a citizen who is unable to keep up with the maintenance the aging building needs and unwilling to turn away individuals seeking refuge in single-digit temperatures. Originally built in the 1950’s the building use to house African- American teachers who came to the area to teach during segregation. So to the African- American population, the building is noteworthy.

Ironically, the property owner contacted city officials after reading my article about the need for emergency and transitional housing. Around four days later, code enforcement showed up to condemn the building, which was a break from previous protocol from when the building was condemned before.

The second task force meeting was fundamentally different from the first and was a departure from previous who, when, what, and why questions and geared more toward funding and how best to obtain grants. While disagreements around the potential uses for the building were not aired during the meeting, afterward, bickering ensued.

Some believe that the property owner was able to keep up with the building financially and had the audacity to come to the emergency meeting with a Rolex around her wrist. Personal attacks against other city officials, were voiced and allegations of political alignments and campaign funding impropriety succeeded.

Others believe that the building is not only suitable, but down right appropriate for transitional housing due to its capability to house 35 individuals in the 16,000 square foot property. Although, proponents of this view were not necessarily forcing the issue, they were requesting that it should be on the table as a possibility after the owner brings the building to code.

Finger pointing abounded and other reasons began to emerge. It was said that the building should not be in such close proximity to the developing shopping district and that faith-based organizations would have nothing to do with any restorative efforts of the building because of it’s reputation of breeding the city’s crime.

Whether or not the claims have any basis in reality, the group is already in fundamental disagreements over future possibilities and we haven’t even gotten to the group meeting where organizations involved all have inherently different approaches to the issues. All discussions so far have really not taken the individuals that they hope to serve into account and their likelihood of participating and taking advantage of resources.

One Response to “When well meaning people gather to try to solve an important social issue”

  1. John Stephens

    Michelle – thanks for this clear, if somewhat disheartening, look at trying to “get ahead” of a community need.

    Some thoughts for you and the other task force people:
    a) A positive point of the first task force meeting was getting different viewpoints on the table and exploring some initial common ideas and enthusiasm to work together. Are you suggesting that some of the more difficult parts – being mo5re candid about different views and needs, and perhaps anticipating the fight over the downtown property – should have been addressed in the first meeting?

    b) Your take on the condemned property shows the difficult balance of agreement on general goals – better, safer places for homeless people and perhaps trying to prevent homelessness – versus the nitty-gritty of where, when and how. It was unclear about the surprise (?) inspection and condemnation – you said the building had been condemned before. Moreover, its significant history to the African-American community and apparent concerns about the homeless population there affecting other stakeholders’ views about proximity to the developing shopping district are just the beginning assessing the pros and cons of that particular location for the city’s strategy on helping homeless residents. Is the group focused only on that location, or are other buildings being considered?

    c) The comment about what was and was not addressed openly at the second task force meeting is not surprising. Funding – even seeking grants – is a ticklish matter. Could you address if the group had some implicit power to decide who applied for the grants (and who did not)? This raises questions about opportunity and accountability; the difference between friendly exchange and coordination of separate resources and the possibility of jointly held monies. Where do you think the process stands in this regard?


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