As homelessness rises to record highs, community opposition to proposed shelters remains deep-seated and, for local elected officials, implacable. In Brooklyn last week, residents blasted the mayor’s proposal for a shelter in Crown Heights, and in Salt Lake City, residents are pleading with the state to intervene in the city’s plan to place a  shelter near Downtown. In Los Angeles, communities are opposed to even storage facilities for items belonging to the homeless. Similar themes have cropped up in almost every city; no one wants a homeless shelter in their backyard.

Regardless of the locale, the rhetoric is the same: the shelter will “destroy” the neighborhood, “it won’t be safe for kids,” and even “why don’t they take it one, over there.” And surprisingly often, city officials back down. Last year, residents of Maspeth, in Queens, were able to bring an abrupt end to a proposed facility there and in the Upper West Side, locals were able to bring about similar results.

And, that’s unfortunate; New York’s homeless shelters, as in cities across the country, are bursting at the seams. There were 62,000 people in New York’s shelters on a typical night in December, an 83 percent rise from a decade earlier. The worsening affordable housing crisis only threatens to exacerbate these trends. Cities need functional homeless shelters that can give the homeless an opportunity to rebuild their lives and receive the social services they need.

Most recognize this, in New York, about 70% of respondents of a recent poll indicated that homelessness was a “very serious problem.”

The gap between the public understanding of the homeless epidemic and attitudes towards homeless shelters proposed for their own communities can be explained, in part, by commonly held views of poor people and homeless shelters.

In general, many Americans view (either subconsciously or overtly) as violent, undesirable and lazy. Homeless shelters, which house the poorest of the poor, are natural targets of these common perceptions.

To overcome these biases, public officials should create more deliberate public relations strategies for marketing homeless shelters, with urban real estate projects as aspirational examples.

A shelter in The Bronx aroused strong community pushback, but residents admit that it’s had little impact via City Limits

Making a new pitch

In truth, most homeless shelters are inconspicuous neighbors. Contrary to the concerns expressed by these residents, a well run homeless shelter is orderly, well-kept and indistinguishable from a privately owned apartment building. These smaller shelters are also programmatically superior; providing their clientele with a safer, more supportive environment, and a better array of social services.

It’s a few large bad apples that give homeless shelters a bad rap. As a neighbor of the notorious Bedford-Atlantic Armory Men’s Homeless Shelter, I can certainly understand why communities would not be eager to welcome similar facilities. The Armory, which houses up to 350 men, is run down building that also hosts a permanent outdoor encampment of men, who spread filth and occasionally make lewd comments to those who pass by. The contingent of men set-up shop directly across the street from the shelter and can range in number from 20-30. Fights and violence have occasionally erupted in the shelter and the encampment that surrounds it, and the impact been quite noticeable on the surrounding desirability of the neighborhood.

Municipal leaders must effectively convey the differences between these kinds of shelters and the ones they’re proposing. The result should be, essentially, be a well tuned public relations and marketing push instead of a stakeholder awareness campaign.

Here are key elements of the pitch:

Photos and Renderings

City officials should announce the new shelters with renderings of the proposed facility and photos of the people that will be served.  Today, communities are often asked to react to a “homeless facility,” and are provided little context aside from the number of beds. Without context, the human mind will inevitably provide it’s own, usually drawing upon the most salient prior experience; the notoriety of shelters like the Armory.

Renderings that show the proposed structure or renovation, along with a few photos and stories of some of the residents who might be served would provide some much needed context. In many cases, the proposed shelter would bring a facade overhaul, renovation or completely new structure to the site.

It also would help for the city to commit itself to facade improvements and certain maintenance  standards in order to ensure that surrounding property values wouldn’t drop due to blight, a primary concern of residents.

Freedom house
Freedom House, a New York facility for veterans looks no different from a conventional apartment building

Name the Facility

Cities should take some cues from the real estate industry and provide each facility with a name, in addition to spiffy renderings. A good name, especially one that conveys the mission of the facility, will also provide much needed context. It will also remind residents of the population that will be served.

Target Population & Outcomes

Good homeless facilities often target specific segments of the population, many of these groups enjoy broad sympathy from the public. City officials would be well advised to leverage that in their outreach with community groups. For example, of the 62,000 New York homeless shelter residents, about 16,000 are parents and 24,000 are children. Similarly, it’s estimated that a significant share of the homeless population are veterans.

Officials and advocates, in cases where the group served enjoys substantial sympathy from the public, should use this to their advantage for messaging. The “Who,” “What” and “Why” are enough to push a proposal over the finish line, in the realm of public opinion.

Outcomes are important, and should not be ignored. At the Downtown Brooklyn Partnership, we wore our relationship with The Doe Fund, a program that helps the formerly homeless rebuild their lives, as a badge of honor; we were proud that we were helping residents regain their footing in our community, and the vast majority of local leaders felt the same way.

If city leaders were to frame the conversation programmatically; how would the facility be selecting, housing and “graduating” residents, potential neighbors may have a more positive reaction.

Safety & Security

City officials should directly and indirectly explain the ground rules for residents living in the shelter, and should make a public effort to recruit those who live next to existing homeless shelters to help convince skeptical locals.

Why It’s So Important

Marketing homeless shelters in this fashion may strike some as callous and even offensive, but the stakes are too important to ignore. Homelessness is one of the most alarming and critical public policy issues of our time, and it’s rising rapidly. To build housing facilities that can accommodate the homeless, and provide them the necessary tools to find jobs and domiciles, cities must be able to construct a network of shelters, that can’t happen if government does not find a way to better communicate with community members.

Featured Image from Marco Giumelli on Flikr


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