In late 2007, a San Francisco homeless youth organization attempted to relocate its needle exchange service from a cramped commercial strip to a church community center less than 650 feet away. The proposed area’s housed community balked at having to “deal with” their less fortunate neighbors, fearing an “invasion.” The reaction was swift, and the plan to move the service was ultimately abandoned. The NIMBYs won.
And if a recent article in the Denver Post is any indication, the same fate may befall a Boulder initiative to provide stable housing for people in drug recovery.
The “not in my back yard” impulse — NIMBYism — is characterized by resistance to having technologies, services, commercial outlets, housing developments, group housing programs, or other initiatives in the neighborhood. Many residents, including left-leaning ones, endorse these initiatives so long as they are not in their neighborhood.
The NIMBY phenomenon has been a thorn in the side of community activists since the 1970s when the deinstitutionalization of vulnerable people was popular, both politically and socially. Since then, many housed community members have reacted with hostility toward marginalized individuals who, due to a fragmented safety net, a lack of social capital, and a high degree of stigma, fail to integrate into the community, resulting in the perceived “ghettoization” of neighborhoods. The problem is perhaps most acute concerning harm-reduction sites, addiction treatment facilities, and those needing those services.
Boulder residents may tsk-tsk the city for not disclosing the home’s location, but there is good reason for the city’s reticence. As any social worker will tell you, community opposition begins when an announcement is made that a group home is imminent. Door-to-door canvassing, petitions, public meetings, and negative media campaigns follow. One of two things happens: opponents successfully block the group home, or efforts fail but not before dealing a critical blow to a home that begins operations with minimal community support.
NIMBY opposition to group homes, drug treatment centers, and other social services falls into three categories: concerns about property value, crime, and children.
For the NIMBY, anything that threatens property value must be vigorously opposed. It’s no coincidence that one concerned citizen lives in a neighborhood where homes can be had for a cool $3 million. NIMBY antagonism along these lines is akin to conservative pearl-clutching over the fear of property damage associated with Black Lives Matter protests. And like most forms of manufactured grievance, the facts give away the game: drug treatment centers do not lower property values.
Another issue highlighted by NIMBYs is the crime and violence that “plague” housing initiatives for people with substance use disorders. This fear is misplaced. In a study published in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs, researchers found that drug treatment centers do not impact crime in communities any more than other commercial businesses. In fact, the authors note, “you are significantly more likely to encounter violent crime near a liquor or corner store than a drug treatment center.” According to state records, Boulder has 20 liquor stores.
And what of the children? NIMBYs consider it self-evident that children and services for the unhoused shouldn’t mix. While opponents may find it axiomatic that children should not be near a group home, there is no evidence establishing a link between unhoused service provision and subsequent negative effects on children. Rather, the harm is in teaching kids that certain people are “other” and not to be interacted with.
So if the standard public anxieties surrounding group homes and treatment centers are not borne out by the data, what gives? While many social, psychological, political, and cultural factors are at play, I think it boils down to good old-fashioned prejudice and stigmatization.
America has a long history of outright disdain for the poor and impoverished. In Denver, redlined neighborhoods were singled out for their high concentrations of families receiving welfare. People perceived as not working, such as unhoused persons, or those blocked from the labor market, like people with substance use disorders, are relegated to less valued positions in society.
Danger and criminality are commonly attributed to homelessness and drug use. While it is true that many unhoused persons have been jailed, their “crimes” are overwhelmingly non-violent, such as public nuisance and trespassing. Crucially, homelessness is a criminalized state of being. Anti-homeless laws give the impression that unhoused persons are involved in dangerous illegal activities when really they are just looking for a place to sleep.
Finally, the American cult of the individual regards users of social services as personally culpable for their circumstances. The greater the perception that homelessness is caused by “individual deficiency,” the less acceptable they are to the community.
The success of social services provision depends on community acceptance. Community support is vital for long-term stability, and conflict can damage a program’s reputation or even result in closure. Given their positive effects on housing outcomes and drug use, Boulder residents should be champing at the bit for more of these initiatives, not fewer.
Vincent LaBarca, of Denver, is a nurse practitioner and assistant professor at Regis University’s Loretto Heights School of Nursing.