Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Folks gotta be more open minded

As printed in the Chapel Hill Herald on Saturday, April 28th:

Last week a number of neighbors of Freedom House, an addiction and mental illness treatment center in northern Chapel Hill, came out to speak against a proposed expansion of the facility.
Most of their concerns centered on safety. One neighbor, Cingai Chen, summed up the rhetoric pretty well by saying, "We are very worried about some day those patients will create a safety concern for our community."

The operative words in that statement are "some day." The reality is that Freedom House has been in our community for more than three decades and there have never been problems. It's a well-run place with tremendous success stories and has never created anything resembling a crime problem. There's no reason to believe expanding the facility would change that.

A similar thing happened in the early 1990s when the AIDS House opened up in Carrboro. There was a good deal of rhetoric about what "element" would be brought into the community and the negative impacts it could have. Now, nearly 20 years later, it's provided a great service for some of our residents and it's never brought a lick of trouble.

In both of these cases and others that have cropped up through the years, people are speaking out and acting mostly based not on factual information or what has happened but because of their fear of the unknown.

It's a basic human impulse, but it's also one worth staying away from as much as possible. Instead of making knee-jerk assumptions, folks should put more time and effort into learning about their neighbors and how to best coexist with them. It would make for a more harmonious community.

I think this is pertinent in particular to two issues that we will continue to face in the next couple of years.

One is panhandling downtown. I read a lot of angry letters to the editor about folks asking for money, and if it's keeping residents and visitors from feeling safe there then it's certainly an issue worth finding solutions for. But punitive measures are not the way to go.

The pragmatic reasons are that for the most part folks aren't doing anything illegal, and an ordinance passed four years ago intended to crack down on aggressive panhandling hasn't seemed to do anything to cut down on the complaints anyway.

Maybe even more importantly, morally it just is not right to punish people who are poor for doing what they can to sustain their lives. Instead of complaining about the panhandlers, it would be better for people to write letters to the editor suggesting feasible things we can do as a community to make it so that there is no need for folks to do it.

The way to eliminate the issue of panhandling is to work toward eliminating the issue of poverty. That's a much more productive exercise for a community than coming down on its most vulnerable residents.

The other issue forthcoming where I think it will be important for people to move beyond their fear of the unknown is the location of the new IFC men's shelter. This is an issue that has been around for years, but has not reached any sort of conclusion because every time a new site is discussed neighbors organize and blow the idea out of the water.

It's going to have to go somewhere, and I bet it won't be nearly as bad a neighbor as folks expect it to be. They may be leery because people often show up in the police beat with the IFC shelter listed as their home address. Interestingly though, a study done from April-July 2004 found that less than 10 percent of the folks who listed it as their address were actually staying there when they were arrested.

The perception of homeless people going around and committing crimes is completely overblown. I hope that wherever the shelter ends up being sited, folks in the area will go there and volunteer and get to know the residents instead of coming to public meetings and making negative generalizations. Again, taking the time to get to know that which is unknown will ease our fears and make us a better community.

Issues of homelessness, addiction and mental health tend to be difficult ones to talk about and deal with. But we have to be informed about them and step outside our comfort zones to get a greater understanding of the role they play in our community.

Shoving them aside or trying to leave them for some other neighborhood or group of people to deal with does not help us move forward. Conquering our fears of the unknown is essential to create the kind of society we want to live in.

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