“Let me assert my firm belief that the only thing only thing we have to fear is fear itself — nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.”
FDR could be speaking to Santa Clara County residents today as we face head-on the challenge of housing our community.
Everyone has a reaction to homelessness. For some, it’s simply an eyesore, a “not my problem” feeling or a safety concern. For most, it triggers a feeling of compassion or of wanting to do something — because most believe that the most vulnerable should be afforded basic necessities and a sense of security and dignity. And yet something holds us back.
For example, we all agree that getting homeless folks off the streets is a good idea. Yet when new housing projects are proposed for them, why are so many people coming out and speaking in opposition? We logically know we should want this solution, but we don’t want it anywhere near where we live. Why?
The answer may be fear. It may be the associated psychological trauma of bearing witness to persistent suffering and homelessness, and what entrenched poverty has done to our community.
For some, it’s fear of the unknown or negative interactions on the street. We may see encampments and shopping carts as a nuisance or blight and we worry about it spreading to where we live and work.
I believe homelessness is not only traumatic for those who are experiencing it, but also for those forced to bear witness. Our community has walked alongside an overwhelming amount of suffering, and with that has come feelings of trauma, blame and fear. If we cannot comprehend ourselves sleeping under a bridge, then it is hard to imagine how someone else could.
Fear can lead to a feeling of uncertainty causing anxiety and resistance. Such may be the case with our reaction to homelessness. Legitimate questions need to be addressed such as:
Is it safe to concentrate so many people who have been homeless in one location?
Will my children be safe playing outside if there’s a housing complex nearby?
Will housing in my neighborhood increase blight and decrease the value of my property?
These are all natural, visceral responses created by our fear of the unknown and a perceived loss of control. However, what is under our control is how we choose to deal with the anxiety.
We can choose compassion and concern for the safety and security that everyone deserves. We can work together to answer these questions.
I think we can do this together. We can be active participants in the planning and executing of new projects, working alongside developers, service providers and government leaders, with homeless and formerly homeless residents who are engaged in the solution.
We should not only expect excellence from our government and partners, but we should demonstrate our own excellence by participating with them in a cooperative environment conducive to success. We should expect our policy makers to take our needs into consideration, but our needs must be realistic and grounded in solutions.
We must challenge our own fears and understand that what we see as homelessness now is not the same as the solutions being proposed.
Supportive Housing is a nationally recognized, best practice solution to ending homelessness by including the services people need to remain stable and healthy. And the best part is it’s a home. It’s not a tent, or a box, or a tarp by the creek. It’s a professionally operated and well designed housing complex that meets the needs of our most vulnerable residents. Let’s heed the wisdom of FDR and convert retreat into advance and end homelessness. It isn’t just for them. It’s also for us.
Frederick J. Ferrer is CEO of The Health Trust. He wrote this for the Mercury News.