Sunday, December 16, 2007

A long read, but a good one

Robert Brownell's 5 days at the YMCA -Des Moines Register

This article is the story of a Polk County Supervisor, Robert Brownell, and his experience staying at their downtown YMCA residence hall for 5 days. Its long, (over 12,000 words), but in my opinion, very much worth reading. He's an excellent writer, and doesn't worrying about being PC or not offending anyone. At least in this article, he appears to tell it like it is, discussing both sides of the issue. He doesn't only talk about this specific problem, but also relates his experiences in discussing this with people out in Denver who are attempting to eliminate homelessness in their city.

For background, the downtown Des Moines YMCA has an 8-story residence hall attached to it. Because of its prime location along the up-and-coming Riverwalk, developers have shown interest in the property, and others have shown an interest in removing the "type" of men that hang out around the YMCA from their booming downtown. The first attempt was to move it to a residential neighborhood, which was met with a response that can be best compared to an 8 story Cobblestone. Here's a quote from the article regarding this:
"They set out to put their residence hall into a traditional neighborhood. There, they encountered modern government’s Maginot Line…someone else’s backyard. The place where nothing is permitted. Really, the only difference between this figurative Maginot Line and France’s famed Line is that the Germans figured out how to breach France’s. The one I speak of, cannot be breached. Oh, that the French had had our neighborhood associations and their line of defenses. Rommel would’ve been last seen in northern Germany sitting atop a Panzer scratching his head."
Now, before anyone jumps on me for posting this anti-NIMBY statement, the author eventually comes around and realizes that this kind of project in fact, doesn't belong in a traditional neighborhood. Like I said, read the article.

The only things I'm not comfortable with are his statements about how posing as a homeless person doesn't cost anyone anything, as long as he follows his rules. For example, he wouldn't stay at the YMCA if it was full, wouldn't interfere with anyone else's recovery, etc. However, we all learn that you can't observe something without affecting it, and even the few minutes of time he took with case managers and employees could have been spent with people who didn't have a nice home waiting for them. On the other hand, I've often thought of encouraging something like this in Davenport, for someone to see what the homeless/non-profit situation really is from the inside, instead of from an outside perspective, or based on what the agencies involved want to tell us.

So make up your own mind on whether this is the right way to look into something, and whether the Housing First policy is remotely realistic, but definitely read the article. Also, ask yourself if any of our local elected officials could write something this good.


Matt said...

i haven't sat down to read the entire article yet, but i wanted to share -
has anyone ever read the book "Sidewalk" by Mitch Duneier? It's not entirely related to the subject of homelessness and an institution such as the YMCA, but is related to the cultural, sociological, and urban study-esque facets of homelessness & the codes of city (NYC) law. it's one of my favorites books.

just thought i'd throw that out there. back to the article...

Anonymous said...

Actually, the Germans never did breach the Maginot Line. They bypassed it entirely by invading the Netherlands and Belgium. Perhaps there is a strategic lesson to be learned from that.

Anonymous said...

It sounds like JLCS was acting like the Germans in its invasion of the C-stone area. They too lied and averted the neighborhood all the while planning its invasion. Both too would see its own demise eventually because of it.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for bring this to our attention - that is great. What you should explore it how Davenport (clayton and Malin along with Kate ridge) actually encouraged the homeless shelter being built it the n'hood discussed in this article. Months ago, the city and Ridge hosted a bus trip to davenport for DesMoines officials to see how well JLCS's shelter fit into our residential area as a reason to encourage and support the one in Des Moines. Ridge went around telling people to be on thier best behavior. In fact, ridge was in DM trying to get this thing to happen.

NO - homeless shelters don't belong in anyone's backyard - no matter where it is. Period. Our city can't friggin figure out how to urban plan long enough to figure it out though.

pioneer98 said...

Homeless shelters don't belong in anyone's backyard? I'm not defending Cobblestone by any means, but without homeless shelters there would be homeless people in backyards.

Isn't the problem that the homeless are always in somebody's backyard? Isn't that the definition of NIMBY? The businesses and people in the current area don't like having them, but no one wants them to move to their neighborhood, either. It's one of those things that simply don't have an easy answer.

Anonymous said...

The unfortunate thing is that the homeless shelters do create neighborhoods that literally have people in the yards. Meaning, in d-port we attract homeless people here because we really do offer ALOT of services for them. So many that RI, Bett etc dump all their folks here too. The shelter stay is 30 days - that's all. Then they go into our central area.

QuadCityImages said...

Some of you people haven't read the article, I'm guessing. The YMCA system the article mainly discusses has a minimum stay of 30 days, and a maximum of 2 years. The residents have to make at least $500 a month, part of which they pay in rent for their room, and they have quite a few rules they have to follow.

The conclusion of the article is basically that the Y needs to stay downtown, because it doesn't fit in a neighborhood of houses, and the residents need to be close to services. That "close to services" argument may sound familiar to those who fought the relocation of 605 Main. The people who have the attitude of "Why SoLo, why downtown?" may not like that conclusion.

And a lot of you homeless bashers really wouldn't like Denver's Housing First campaign.

Anonymous said...

In Davenport a majority of the homeless simply hang out around town when they are supposed to be finding work. The Main street libary is a prime example of this. You walk into that library on any cold or hot day and you will see what has basically become a daytime shelter. The night shelter kicks them out to find work and they sit in the library all day. For the most part they just stare at the civilians, no reading. Sometimes they can be seen on their cell phones but mostly they just like to stare. I sure wish Director Roudebush would take a stand and find them something productive to do so that they will move on. Alas that is a pipe dream, they are her people.

QuadCityImages said...

Why do they bother you so much?

Anonymous said...

The thing I don't get about the attitude in Davenport is again, the insistence on an either-or, black or white mentality regarding this issue.

The general attitude seems to be IF we allow homeless shelters and offer services to people downtown, THEN we will never effectively create a robust and healthy downtown area.

This simply isn't true.

Now, I'm not saying that there aren't problems with homeless, and other "undesirable" types in our downtown area.

However, as someone who has lived and/or visited places lauded for being great urban areas like Madison, Wisc., Portland, Ore., etc., they too have homeless shelters, quite a few homeless people themselves and services offices in their very thriving, very desirable downtown.

The thing too many people around here don't realize is that the FIRST step is to build up the desireable downtown - support things like the RME, utilizing all of the riverfront including an expanded centennial park, support the new Putnam Building redevelopment, Freight House and Salvation Army.

Once you get a critical mass of those positive type things going, it becomes less attractive for vagrants and homeless people to hang around.

I feel the same about expansion of Centennial Park. The fact that the nice gazebo down there in the summer often looks like an outdoor tavern for bums really pisses me off.

The solution, however, is to BUILD the new pavilion, expand the basketball courts and get MORE PEOPLE down there using the park. Positive uses always chase out negative uses.

Anonymous said...

I feel sad when I read the thoughts from the hearts of people on this blog. What are our community values? Are we so concerned about ourselves that we have no compassion for the homeless. The Cobble Stone Homes are not homeless shelters. They are homes for families. Shame on those of you who have no compassion for anyone, and lump everyone into your skewed vision of who is homeless and hungry.

Anonymous said...

All of the comments about how the homeless aren't a problem and they don't impact the central city - you obviously drive out of the area every day or probably don't go there. Those of us who do live here see the shit daily. Vagrants walking though the alleys, panhandlers, creepy homeless thugs psyching us out in our cars. Druggies hanging in the parks. We don't help people in Davenport, we give handouts - that is all. Do you know how many soup kitchens there are in downtown Davenport? On on every corner. There are no incentives to work. None. Why work when your meals are taken care of by people who live in nice neighborhoods. Why work, when when you can find nice slum housing downtown and in the surrounding areas. Work - what is that?

What we need is a system that discriminates on who is helped. Meaning, asking some questions. Like, do you live in Davenport? Or are you visiting here for the free bees. Where do you live? Why did you come here? Etc.

Our population is too small to support all of the homeless we have. It is impacting our quality of life here. That and the halfway house for criminals and sex offenders. We are idiots here in Davenport.

QuadCityImages said...

So simply seeing a homeless person bothers you that much? Why is that?

Anonymous said...

"Do you know how many soup kitchens there are in downtown Davenport? One on every corner."

That's such a huge overstatement I'm having a hard time coming up with a clever way to point it out. You're welcome to your own opnion of how the homeless should be handled to prevent its expansion, but don't try and convince me the the downtown just a giant soup-kitchen, and nothing more.

I don't like hand-outs all that much for the homeless either, but I don't think it's being done on some huge scale that's hurting our very existence as a community. We don't have THAT many homeless people - the stories you hear about people downtown are usually exaggereted.

It's the same 20 or so people you see 1000 times, not a 1000 different people. Less importantly, I'm not nearly as scared as you of homeless folks, most just kind of wander around and keep to themselves. Big deal, we live in a City and its a fact of life. It's true we could have a better system, but it' hard to argue how the homeless are treated is destroying Davenport, as you're alluding to.

Anonymous said...

Homelessness is a very, very difficult problem.

One of the more unique articles I've read on the subject in recent years comes from the New Yorker (but it's not about NYC). Worthwhile reading for anyone interested in the subject:

Anonymous said...

Let's try making that a link.

Anonymous said...

Have you ever sat down and talked to a homeless person? Have you ever imagined what it must be like to be homeless? Have you ever seen a family driven out of there home into the streets with no family or friends to help them? If you really know the homeless I doubt you could continue to be so hard hearted. I hope my heart never becomes so cold that I have no compassion for my neighbor.
Fortunatly not all people in the central city have the same attitude as those of you that look at a homeless person and see a problem, not a human being.

Anonymous said...

Central community cirle, St. Anthonys, JLCS shelter, the place on Iowa and like 4th street = 4 soup kitchens. Why does a population of less than 99,000 have so many? JLCS claimed they fed hundreds of people per day.

It isn't so much about homelessness as it is about poverty. We have grown and sustained an increase in our poverty rates. Because many of these people have been warehoused south of locust (through federal dollars for homelessness and affordable housing) we have created a major problem for these areas and the city in general.

We have just come to understand that mixed income neighborhoods are the way to go. It may be too late though for these areas, but I hope not.

We have very few alderman and even fewer staff who actually get it.

It is always okay when it is someone elses neighborhood.

Anonymous said...

Oh - yes - the Vineyard. 5 in a 10 square block area.

Anonymous said...

Conservative Demo here:
Over the period of the recent summer I had quite a few real conversations with one particular homeless man who was "living" in various places in and along the Duck Creek Parkway.

There's no dispute that the man doesn't have good social graces but he does understand that home owners do feel uneasy seeing him in their neighborhoods, and he actually appeares to carry some sense of responsibility in being something of a one man "neighborhood-watch" committee.

By that I mean that he was very alert about things going on at night in a park near my house - teenage vandal things of which I also was aware - and he went about making his presence known to the filthy adolescents (my words there, not his) which then tended to mitigate some of their mischief.

In speaking with a cop one day after a somewhat egregious vandalism had occurred, I learned that the cop also knew of that homeless guy's presence and positive influence on preventing more vandalism from happening.

The man owns few posessions but the few pathetic items he does own are very important to him.

He's not burdened by our societal values about applying himself to "moving up" (for example his can-and-bottle earnings immediately get spent on beer and ciggies), but he darn-well does talk about his future in optimistic (and I must add, totally unrealistic) terms.

In closing, I never felt threatened in my times with him, even during two late-night conversations down on the bike path. Personally, I suspect he's generally uncomfortable among people and merely wants to live as invisibly as possible. He knows he is dependant for his sustenance and well being upon the trash and garbage of we home owners and park users, and the least obtrusive way for him to find that is during the dark of night.

If generally left alone that one homeless man poses no threat to you or me.

freda said...

I was in Denver two years ago and couldn't believe the number of homeless living in City parks. I think to solve the issue you have to understand it. There are many different reasons a person becomes homeless - mental or physical illness, alcoholism, a string of bad choices or circumstances. Just as there's no single cause, there's no single solution.

Anonymous said...

Conservative Demo -
thanks for your remarks, honestly as a non-profit worker if more people sought out the information that you have, we would all be in a better place. The problem is that the "liberal media" often makes us all out to be the bad guys, the truth is we all know "homeless" people, chances are very good within our neighborhoods, but somewhere human beings regardless of race or orientation, etc. are going to say would I help this man with a $10 or would I enable him? For most people enabling=$ helping is our civic duty.