Civility Versus Compassion On City Streets
LONG BEACH, CALIF. — Jim Brophy sits at a table outside his small coffeehouse. A thoughtful and quietly intense man, he glances down the block toward Christian Outreach Appeal and shakes his head.
It isn't, he says, that people in the East Village neighborhood here don't understand the homeless or are unsympathetic to those suffering from alcohol or drug addiction. Rather, many residents feel that the clientele of a growing number of nearby nonprofit social-service providers - and those who prey upon them - are overrunning the area.
"We just asked the city [to] give us a moratorium. No more programs until we can figure out what we need to address this problem," Mr. Brophy says. "Let's show the country how it's done right."
Through its moratorium, Long Beach is one of the first cities in the nation to freeze the expansion of social-service providers such as soup kitchens and homeless shelters. Some criticize it as yet another sign of an American society growing less tolerant of its most needy. But others say it simply shows the challenge of balancing social responsibility with a community's quality of life.
"How do we support the poor and at the same time create the kind of communities we want to live in?" asks Florence Green, executive director of The California Association of Non-Profits. "That's the ultimate issue."
And in a time when welfare rolls are being pared and funding for social-service programs is shifting to the local level, it is an issue that will likely find growing resonance nationwide.
"This moratorium is a new twist on a trend, an increase over the past two years in efforts to exclude or restrict providers of a wide range of services to the homeless and the poor ... through the use of zoning laws," says Maria Foscarinis, executive director of the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty in Washington. "The conflict is coming because cities are under a lot of pressure to rebuild their downtown areas, and they view groups serving poor people as impeding that effort."
Some in Long Beach would put it even more bluntly. "I understand this city has a plan to redevelop and turn this into an arts district. One of the hindrances is the ugly sight of homeless and poor people on the street," says the Rev. O. Leon Wood Jr. of Christian Outreach Appeal, a nonprofit interdenominational social-service agency here that, among other things, served 57,000 free meals to the homeless last year. "I'm all for rebuilding the community. It's just that I'd like to rebuild the people along with it."
The Long Beach moratorium, however, has frozen social-service agency expansion only temporarily while a task force reexamines the city's two-decades-old zoning laws, notes City Council member Jenny Oropeza. No program has been forced to close. Instead, she and others expect that any change in zoning laws will grandfather in existing programs.
"It's all about balance," Ms. Oropeza says. "We have blocks in my district where there are three or four different programs, residential care facilities, sober living facilities, and others.... There's a high transiency factor. It has a very destabilizing impact on neighborhoods."
And while the city does have a downtown redevelopment plan, the broader issue is the need for a major assessment of the social services available in the city.
Indeed, Brophy, who is also president of the neighborhood association, says the moratorium has less to do with the city's development than residents' quality of life. "It got really ugly," he says. Elderly residents were afraid to leave their homes. "Crime, begging, public urination, discarded needles. We understand that we need to help people. We can't turn our backs on them. But we also can't continue to enable them. We have to ask them to help themselves. If they're not willing to do that, we can't keep allowing them to do this to the neighborhood."
But others see another important issue here: control. The Long Beach situation mirrors, in a number of respects, that of Hartford, Conn. There, neighborhood complaints of oversaturation by social-service nonprofits led to a moratorium and subsequent zoning reform last year.
"We have a right to control our zoning," says Andrea Buglione-Corbett, who served as executive assistant to the city councilman who backed the moratorium. "Cities plan, and what we're planning for is a future that makes Hartford a wonderful place to live and work."
Curious about how Hartford is handling these concerns other cities, including Milwaukee and Kansas City, Mo., have asked for information about the program.
Still, critics persist, and some see legal clouds on the horizon. As yet, the Hartford moratorium has gone largely unchallenged. But "there are some constitutional and discrimination issues," says Ms. Green. "I think the moratoriums will be overturned on that basis."