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Homelessness in whose backyard?

As a Los Angeles resident, I empathize with both sides of the NIMBY debate

Homelessness in whose backyard?

Venice Beach, Calif. (Shutterstock)

Two weeks ago, WORLD Magazine published my story about the clash between NIMBYs and YIMBYs. A NIMBY—short for “Not in My Backyard”—is a person who opposes development projects such as homeless shelters in his neighborhood. A YIMBY—“Yes in My Backyard”—is a person who supports such local projects.

These terms might sound foreign to those who don’t live in high-density, housing-crunched, homeless-filled cities such as Los Angeles and San Francisco. But for us coastal California urbanites, they are controversial buzzwords, meant to label groups based on what (or who) they’re against. 

According to self-proclaimed YIMBYs, NIMBYs are, as one 40-year-old radiologist who owns a condo in LA described to me, “horrible, selfish, millionaire homeowners” who are responsible for jacking up housing costs and causing a spike in homelessness in the city. To so-called NIMBYs—who would never describe themselves by that label, given its negative connotations—YIMBYs are idealistic bleeding hearts who have no problem championing new developments in somebody else’s backyard. 

Obviously, neither group likes or trusts the other. Take, for example, the recent battle over a proposed permanent supportive housing project for the homeless in the Venice neighborhood. When YIMBYs piled into a neighborhood council meeting to voice their support for the project, some residents who opposed it suspected that the supporters were actually homeless people in need of those services themselves, and they accused nonprofits of busing them in to create the “illusion” of massive local support. I looked into those accusations, and though it’s true that some were indeed beneficiaries of homeless services, many supporters were Venice homeowners who desired a more inclusive neighborhood.

Venice Community Housing

Reese Davidson Community, a proposed housing development that would include 140 units of affordable and supportive housing in Venice, Calif. (Venice Community Housing)

Then, during a public hearing with the LA City Planning Commission over the same project, a woman who was part of the YIMBY group whispered to me that the whole meeting was set up against poor people: Why else would the city hold a hearing in Van Nuys—a 40-minute drive from Venice—at 8 a.m. on a Thursday? “The earlier it is, the less supporters will come because poor people have to work,” she said. “Those people,” she continued, nodding at the housing project opponents sitting up front, “they’re rich. They make six to seven figures, so they’ll have no problem taking the time off to come here.” But I knew housing opponents who couldn’t make it to the meeting for the same reasons, and I didn’t believe that the city was intentionally trying to shut out poor people. In fact, the city commissioners all expressed sympathy for the homeless, and one divulged that he too was once homeless. 

As a reporter, I heard both the YIMBY and NIMBY sides. And as a fellow LA resident, I empathize with both sides. Housing availability is a critical issue in our city, and the disparities between certain neighborhoods are jarring: While my neighborhood is filled with multistory apartment buildings and traffic noises and graffiti, certain other neighborhoods are checkered with beautiful, single-unit family homes, manicured lawns, and lush trees. When I read about those affluent neighborhoods protesting against new housing developments or metro stops in their area, I feel annoyed: Why do they get to preserve their small-town charm while we deal with the brunt of the traffic and parking issues?

Over the years, I’ve seen the number of homeless go up in my city. They’ve been camping in my neighborhood. Last summer, when the city tried to build a temporary 65-bed shelter for the homeless in Koreatown (a neighborhood next to mine), hundreds of residents—many of them Korean-American immigrants who had worked hard to build their own community—gathered to protest the shelter, saying it was too close to businesses and schools. The Korean-American community harbors decadeslong grievances against LA officials for continuously sidelining its people in important decisions, so it took this recent top-down decision from the city as another slap in the face.

Though I personally felt that the Koreatown reaction to the shelter was overblown, I could also understand the residents’ fear and frustration: The 2.7-square-mile neighborhood has dealt with 400 homeless individuals living on its streets for a while now, and the proposed shelter would inevitably attract more. Everyone in LA knows how badly the city bungled with Skid Row, the notorious homeless village downtown. Nobody wants another Skid Row in his backyard.

I should know. Almost every day I have to hop over poop and pee and vomit and trash on the sidewalks. It’s easy enough to feed and befriend the homeless in other neighborhoods. But when they’re trashing your own backyard, it’s not so easy to feel the compassion.

FightBackVenice

A lawn sign in Venice (FightBackVenice)

For the last few months, I’ve had a middle-aged man sleeping in an alleyway several yards from my bedroom window. Somehow, he had procured a mattress, dragged it into the alley, and set up a little tent over it with a tarp and broken furniture. That’s a common sight these days, and it wouldn’t have bothered me if not for this man screaming obscenities at all hours of the day. Every time I peeked out of my window, I saw the man standing wide-legged in the alley, flailing his arm, punching the air, ejecting streams of angry, ugly words as though in a fight with someone, even though he was all alone. 

That’s what made me sad: He was always alone. He is clearly not healthy, but from all my reporting on homelessness, I know there are few places for him to go: This city does not have enough shelters, psychiatric or rehab beds, transitional housing, or permanent supportive housing for the 50,000 homeless individuals who need a place to stay. So then what? The status quo is clearly not working ... so what needs to change?

Many LA residents have told me we should bus these homeless to the mountains, far away from society. Except that few homeless people would go willingly to the boonies. Neither does it solve anything to exile our problems out of sight, out of mind. The very reason why state and city officials are finally attempting to do something about the homelessness crisis is because it’s gotten visible and big enough to impact people’s quality of life. Disruption can be good. Disruption can force much-needed change. 

Other residents have told me that whenever the homeless are up to no good on the streets, why not just jail them? But most of California’s homeless are not lawbreakers, while the state’s jails and prisons are already overflowing: Gov. Jerry Brown during his tenure released hundreds of convicted inmates, which may have contributed to a spike in crime and homelessness. Besides, simply locking someone up does not fix their poverty, addiction, or mental illness. It’s another “out of sight, out of mind” response to a problem that’s intricately intertwined with our society’s ills, sins, and mistakes. These people are not somebody else’s problem. They’re ours.

About a week ago, the man outside my window disappeared. His mattress is still there, slouching against the brick wall. Trash and broken furniture and dirty clothes sprawl across the asphalt, reeking from the dampness of dayslong rain. I have no idea where the guy went. But should he return, he’ll probably find his mattress and garbage still there, exactly as he left it. Nobody likes to deal with somebody else’s mess—not until we’re forced to.