Three fundamental policy choices underlie municipal decisions on reducing homelessness: Location, permanence and prioritizing the quality of housing stock. The first choice deals with the simple calculation of “where will you put the homeless housing inventory?” It would be convenient to leadership if cities could simply privateer numerous under-utilized motels, hotels, and other residential and quasi-residential sites and move homeless persons into them. Since that inventory likely isn’t sufficient and cities aren’t privateers, let’s dispose of that fantasy and move on. There’s not going to be a convenient concentration of sites, so policy leaders are going to have to disperse the inventory in almost all communities. Most cities won’t be lucky enough, in other words, to have the federal government abandon a military base of hundreds of acres in size covered by dozens of convertible residential and other buildings. Absent the “campus opportunity,” the homeless will have to be dispersed throughout a city’s boundaries.
Everyone in an enlightened city will have to share the burden of addressing homelessness. It’s a city wide problem from which no one can “opt out,” despite zoning ordinances deliberately calculated to keep traditional single family neighborhoods pristine and grand. Happily, there’s an opportunity to disperse the homeless population, through the mission work of church, temple and mosque campuses. A significant majority of churches, etc., have immense parking lots; and they are scattered around the city. A significant number of churches and temples are over-parked, whether their parking burdens were sensibly calculated or not from the outset. Finding a half acre or more of land within parking fields on a church campus that could accommodate eight to 10 or housing units would not be difficult. Sabbath services that fill the parking areas of most churches and temples constitute such a low percentage of gatherings held on these campuses that building on some parts of these parking areas would not be missed.
I cannot address most temples or mosques, but I’m confident that many churches are decreasing in weekly attendance and participation. This explains why cell towers are becoming features of church campuses in communities where coverage is spotty. There’s nothing aesthetically pleasing about cell towers compelling church leaderships to seek partnerships with wireless communications companies. Seems to me that churches will be induced to support some degree of homeless housing through government subsidies for providing housing opportunities in transitional housing.
Yep, this policy choice is going to create havoc in neighborhoods claiming they’re desperately fighting to preserve their character and quality. Some such neighborhoods cannot be induced to consider hosting affordable housing, much less this “disruptive” residential use. That’s an issue for leadership to manage through appropriate backbone and messaging. It’s simply unlikely that homelessness will be productively curbed without neighborhoods’ acceptance of their collective burdens to participate in the solution. And that means allowing housing for portions of the homeless population in your neighborhood. It’s not unreasonable to establish a few ground rules for homeless persons entering into a new neighborhood, however. Local government should be prepared to promote regulations that are humane and protect some measure of neighborhood serenity.
Of course, church, temple and mosque campuses are suitable locations for transitional homeless housing for several other reasons. Many of them have industrial-scale (or smaller) kitchens suitable for central processing of prepared foods for homeless on-campus residents.
God bargained for a mutual covenant: I will be your God, in return for which you will be my people. Grace ain’t cheap, D. Bonhoeffer wrote. Many churches and temples will be ready to explore doing their parts. Maybe mosques, too. Established neighborhoods have to take on a few of the hardships, too. At least, if we’re all serious about ending homelessness.
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