SLO shelter issue is about people, not politics

bcuddy@thetribunenews.comJanuary 12, 2013 

Bob Cuddy

It’s been pretty nippy these recent nights, and I’m wondering what the conversation is like among the homeless down at the creek. Maybe it goes something like this.

Clem: You know, I wish Adam Hill would be more civil when he talks about Bill Thoma. Sometimes he’s downright rude. Throw another stick on the fire, would ya?

Al: I know what you mean. Thoma has feelings, just like everyone else. Present company excepted, of course. How’s that Mulligan stew coming?

Clem: It’s starting to bubble. (He glances sharply to the side.) Quiet down over there! What the heck is that noise?

Sadie: It’s Eddie’s teeth chattering. He can’t help it. Say, can you spare a corner of the blanket? The kids are shivering.

Clem: Sure, here you go. (Turns back to Al.) I wonder what effect Thoma’s fight with Hill has on that homeless shelter they all say they want to build?

What’s that, you say? You don’t think the folks without a roof over their heads are worried about politics or procedure or even civility? You say they just want to find a way to keep themselves and their families warm?

I think you’re right. And I think it is time to remind everyone what this homeless shelter kerfuffle is, at base, about:

It’s not about the comfort level of Thoma, or Hill’s deportment. It’s about the comfort level of people who are down and out, powerless and helpless.

It’s easy to forget that in the current political climate.

For those who have not been paying attention over the past three or so years, a homeless shelter is being proposed for South Higuera Street, near the Prado Day Center. It would have 200 beds. There are an estimated 4,000 homeless people in San Luis Obispo County, many of them children.

The would-be shelter has become more visible in recent months even though it has been slogging its way through various government bureaucracies for literally years.

In the past several months, however, Thoma and other business people near the proposed shelter have mounted a campaign to change its location. This angered Hill, who, with others, had been working on it for years and was getting into the fundraising stage.

He fired off a sizzling email in December that seemed to have landed in every mailbox west of the Mississippi. He called Thoma “selfish and dishonest.” And those were the compliments.

Hill’s email, which led him to apologize for being a hothead, got all the ink. But Thoma, his dudgeon as high as an elephant’s eye, gave it right back to Hill. In the process, a series of emails from Thoma, who apparently can’t write a succinct note, came out.

In one of them, during which he explained at length his involvement with the homeless, he actually called CAPSLO director Biz Steinberg a liar.

Speaking of a CAPSLO promise to keep the business community involved, Thoma wrote, “This was personally communicated to me by Biz Steinberg on three occasions, directly to my face. I believed her at the time and I have been lied to.”

OK, guys, it’s time to invoke Rodney King: Can’t we all get along? The only ones chilling in this discussion are the folks living down by the creek.

I am writing here more about the tone of the discussion than about the substance of the various arguments. However, I do want to make a few observations.

First, I have covered countless NIMBY — “not in my back yard” — discussions over the decades, from battered women’s shelters to homes for children with Down syndrome to medical marijuana clinics.

The argument is always the same: “This is a whizbang proposal, but this is the wrong location.” But when you go to a different location, they say the same thing.

The South Higuera shelter is classic NIMBY.

A second observation: One tried-and-true way to kill a project is to suggest endless studies that cost more than its backers have or can raise. Even if the study does move forward, the delay can kill the proposal.

On the other hand, local businesses certainly have a point about some of the homeless lousing up their operations. Those proposing the shelter should guarantee to find ways to keep that from happening.

A final, very important thought: There are many varieties of homeless, from people living in their car to the mentally ill to people who will spit in your face and shoulder you off the sidewalk. The starting point for this discussion should be to sort them out and deal with them as they are.

You can’t just assume they all are violent trespassers. That ignores the fact that we have children living in automobiles. One such child is one too many. Mix a little compassion with the fear.

And for Pete’s sake, turn down the verbal heat and remember what this discussion is about: People who have no place to live.

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