Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Compassion vs. NIMBYism

Greater Santa Barbara is a beautiful place to live.  The scenery is breath-taking.  The weather is close to perfect.  There is wonderful produce and incredible locally produced wine available all year long.   Traffic is reasonable.  Culture is available.  There are scores of great restaurants.  There are also downsides... housing is limited and because of systemic issues like Prop 13, the cost of housing is prohibitive for many.  Many folk who live here are literally one pay check away from homelessness and once you fall off the ledge, it is next to impossible to get back up. 

As a result of all of the above, we have a significant population of folk who live in their vehicles. Many of those folk have full time jobs that do not provide enough income even for a minimal apartment in the area.  Many have children who attend local schools.  Some are senior citizens who for whatever reason have lost their homes or apartments.  They live in RVs, in vans, and even in cars.  Most are permanent and longtime residents of the area who have fallen on bad luck and through no moral failings or fault of their own have no other way to live in a community which they have called home, sometimes for their entire lives.  So they search for safe places to park and sleep.  Mothers search for a streetlight, strategically placed so their children can do their homework by streetlight.

Unfortunately the powers that be decided years ago that it wasn't good for folk to sleep in their vehicles so every few hours the police knock on the window, waking everyone from what is never a sound sleep in areas that are often not safe, and force them to move.  Those who work, show up at the job without a full nights sleep.  Children go to school tired and stressed.

Some years ago Catholic Services began a program allowing some of these folk to park in church parking lots.  The program grew beyond their resources and it was passed on to another non-profit who shaped it into a program that has received national attention for the positive impact it has.  Rolling Stone wrote about it.   AARP magazine mentioned it and there is a video interview on their website of a person living (quite well and happily so) in a van.  Santa Barbara city and county and the city of Goleta each recognized the need and have passed laws allowing churches to participate in the program.

The Safe Parking program has stiff requirements for the participants and is very well supervised.  It is not designed to help vagrants or the stereotypically homeless.  Instead, it provides a safe haven for those who are living in their vehicles so they can begin to put their lives back on track.

Cambridge Drive Community Church applied to the city for the appropriate permits to allow overnight parking in our lot of up to five vehicles (although the church was only planning to allow one at this time).  We can see no negative impacts on our neighbors and indeed we believe it will help to make our neighborhood safer.  We cannot see any negative impacts on the community while at the same time believe it provides us an opportunity to do the ministry to which we are called as a church.  We received the permit according to city law.

Many of our neighbors have supported the plan.  Multiple times I have heard people say, "Isn't that what churches are supposed to be doing?" A few have observed, "My father (sister, brother) is living in a van. I'm glad there are safe places for them to park."   There also is a NIMBY backlash.  Some neighbors have been spreading misinformation about the program, telling neighbors that we will be having vagrants camping in the church park and that we will be bring undesirable criminals who are "not like us" into the neighborhood.  Their implication is clear that these folk will damage property, rob homes, and molest children.  They have even passed out flyers at the local elementary school.

What according to the city law is a simple administrative procedure now will include a hearing before the zoning commissioner.  I don't see any legal reason to withdraw the permit but that is what they are hoping will happen.  If that hearing does not go as these folk want, we are told they will likely appeal the hearing to the entire zoning board.   I expect that if that does not go as they want, they will try to get the city council involved. 

I'm frustrated... angry... that these folk think they have the right to define our ministry...  and ready to stand for compassion and for the gospel.

Two scriptures come to mind -
Mt. 8:20, "Jesus replied, 'Foxes have dens and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.'" and 
Luke 10:25-37 
25 On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
26 “What is written in the Law?” he replied. “How do you read it?”
27 He answered, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’”
28 “You have answered correctly,” Jesus replied. “Do this and you will live.”
29 But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”
30 In reply Jesus said: “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he was attacked by robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. 31 A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. 32 So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. 33 But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. 34 He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, brought him to an inn and took care of him. 35 The next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper. ‘Look after him,’ he said, ‘and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.’
36 “Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?”
37 The expert in the law replied, “The one who had mercy on him.”
Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.”


Peter said...

Good luck with this Roy! We count on you to fight the good fight and stand up for what is right! And we will have your back!!!!!

Michael Mahoney said...

I agree... I hope you guys succeed in this.

There is a church in our city here that leaves it's outer lobby unlocked and heated all winter. It's in one of the better neighborhoods, but still, it's an amazing outreach.