Smile Politely

Safe Haven misconceptions

As a supporter of Safe Haven Community, I found Caleb Curtiss’ recent Smile Politely’s article City stance on Safe Haven ‘absolutely unacceptable’ and the resulting exchanges to be intriguing echoes of my own recent conversations. This local experiment we’ve come to know as Safe Haven conjures a range of reactions and emotions. Many, it seems, merge personal experience with “the homeless” and rumors, fears, projections, and domino theorizing to remain skeptical.   

In contrast, my interaction with Safe Haven residents and supporters has fueled my optimism that their vision can help build better a community. Here we have a group of individuals who instinctively banded together to pursue a safe and secure space to live.  They sought their own solution-as it happens, a solution quite similar to ones proven successful in other locations. One that poses little real risk to our community, and one that can save considerable resources by relying on people willing to feed themselves, manage their own facilities and space, dispose of their own waste, encourage each other, and regulate their own behaviors.

Our civic embrace of this vision would signal we live in a community with a generosity of spirit that will support its residents as they seek to resolve their own dilemmas.  But even if skepticism over whether they can succeed prevents our open embrace, at the least, nothing is lost in simply letting them try, and nothing is gained by thwarting their attempt. 

Negative gut reactions to the unfamiliar, such as those Caleb elicited, are normal. Occasional volunteer stints at shelters and soup kitchens have sobered me to the challenges that those who regularly engage “the homeless” face.  Such work can lead to rapid burnout and disillusionment; it is not for the faint hearted. So I don’t base support of Safe Haven on guaranteed success or romanticized virtues of the homeless. But I doubt that projecting past experience or uninformed fear onto Safe Haven offers the kind of reflection that moves us beyond the tunnel vision of what “is” to build the better community that “could be.”

I am confident that considering Safe Haven on its own merits and closer scrutiny of rumors and assumptions can convert many skeptics.  As Caleb’s article showed, detractors often focus on concerns about disruption, zoning laws, use of alternatives, personal character, and (one they missed) “tents won’t work in winter.”  Let’s look at these more closely:

Disruption.  I often hear three alleged incidents cited to prove that Safe Haven is disruptive.  Only one (panhandling) offers a valid case of disruption, and even it shows Safe Haven’s commitment to regulate itself.

  • Two members panhandled at a Mahomet campsite. When Safe Haven received the complaint, they expelled the offenders on the spot. [I witnessed the decision and drove the two back to Champaign.]
  • Catholic Worker neighbor complaints. In a central Champaign milieu where many come and go, guilt by association is easy to come by and hard to disprove. Though underreported, neighbors later conceded at a second neighborhood meeting that the problems cited related to the traditional population of soup kitchen clients and others not connected to Safe Haven.
  • Police conflict behind St. Jude. No, I was not there, but I know who the police engaged and trust his account. Because the case is pending, I’ll avoid detail. I’ll only say that conversations with him and others who were there convince me the claim is not valid…that an attempt to reach out to authorities got turned on its head.

A similar but larger experiment in Portland, Oregon, experienced 24 police calls in its first year (2003); by 2007 police were summoned only three times.  The assertion that “homeless people” are intrinsically undisciplined and disruptive, so Safe Haven must be intrinsically undisciplined and disruptive, just doesn’t hold.

Zoning.  Safe Haven’s non-compliance and the sanctity of zoning laws anchor other objections.  Neither assumption holds up well.

  • Safe Haven and hosts have consistently sought to work with zoning officials as best they can, short of disbanding. They inhabited each location with prior permission and were explicitly invited to four of the five. When challenged, owners sought to work with officials and relied on established appeal processes to retain them. Their responses show considerable respect and desire to work within existing legal structures.
  • As for zoning laws based on “centuries of experience,” our “experience” continues to evolve with our needs and social consciousness. Some states and communities exempt religious institutions from zoning to practice their religious mission (like serving the homeless). Others have adapted zoning to accommodate “safe havens.” These laws are local. They can be adapted, modified, temporarily tested, and reversed if shown inadequate. They are far from sacred. Changing them will not topple the first domino in a chain that unravels society.
  • In the meantime, unlike most who read this, Safe Haven residents cannot retreat to the comfort of their homes to casually ponder theoretical questions of juridical protocol vis-à-vis homelessness. They have to eat, sleep, and live somewhere.

Existing Shelters.  Many believe Safe Haven should use existing shelters, or that their presence undermines those in our community.  No one involved with Safe Haven questions the need for our shelters and their services. But we not only have room for alternatives, we need them.

  • Shelters for women and children are full with large waiting lists and limited lengths of stay; they sometimes require specific life circumstances for admission.
  • No shelters admit couples.
  • Men’s shelters are not full, but will be in winter.
  • Some men expelled from a shelter still have potential to rehabilitate, and they deserve other housing opportunities.
  • It is hard to structure a personally dignified life at a shelter. Privacy is minimal and belongings must be separately secured or taken along during the day. Despite strengths, shelters are not as conducive to either serious job hunting or maximizing a sense of normalcy and personal dignity.
  • While some may need a shelter environment, others need the self-governing, self-empowering, self-regulating, mutually supportive environment and sense of community that Safe Haven offers.

Personal Character.  Some criticize individual conduct-real or imagined-to justify skepticism.  In doing so, detractors demand more of Safe Haven residents than they do of shelters or others in general.

  • Testimonials about residents offered work who didn’t stick with it seek to “prove” Safe Haven is a bad “concept” or made up of unworthy folks. Even if true, does permission for Safe Haven to exist hinge on the willingness or ability of all members to take and keep every job opportunity? Shelters may ask for evidence that residents address personal issues-which may or may not include seeking employment-but we don’t require all shelter guests to pursue full employment simply to permit the shelter to exist. So why make it a criterion for the existence of Safe Haven?
  • Questions also surface about residents’ long term commitment to Safe Haven-its numbers ebb and flow. If we support them and Safe Haven evaporates, won’t we look silly? There are no guarantees. But residents say they are committed to make it work. Their number hovers around ten. A core group has stuck together over four moves and five locations in three months. I consider that to be commitment deserving a chance to thrive.

The Winter.  Since tents won’t keep them warm in winter, some view supporting Safe Haven in the summer as short-sighted and futile.  In fact, other communities have successfully adapted to use micro-housing units for winter living-even in the Midwest.

Safe Haven could accomplish much more if encouraged and supported, rather than faced with a continual threat of eviction and constant negotiation for their right to exist. Whether we support them comes back to the kind of community we want.  Can we grant space and time for people to create a meaningful life at minimal risk to us? Or will fears, prejudices, and lack of vision dominate? 

We must commend our city leaders for bringing prosperity to Champaign.  We have a great downtown to enjoy and a solid economic base to lean on.  But prosperity without generosity rings hollow, tarnishes those accomplishments, and diminishes civic pride-especially when that generosity requires minimal cost or risk for us. 

Responders to Caleb’s article cite an absence of supportive outpouring as evidence the silent majority in town really doesn’t want Safe Haven to survive.  But perhaps many are simply waiting to see what happens before committing either way.  As individuals, we cannot create public policy.  But we can individually choose whether fear, stigma, and projection govern our thinking.  And we can individually encourage our leaders to respond with civic generosity and vision.  Don’t simply wait to see what happens.  Let our leaders know we want their past success to ring true rather than hollow by permitting Safe Haven to pursue their vision.



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