Off to the side in the Arroyo Grande City Council chamber, a replica of the Statue of Liberty stands, metaphorically watching the goings-on and perhaps reminding the local government and citizenry of what this nation is supposed to be all about.
You remember the Statue of Liberty, don’t you? “Give me your poor, your tired, your huddled masses. ”
The other night as I sat in the back of the chamber listening to a discussion about helping three homeless families, I had to force myself not to jump up, walk over to Lady Liberty and throw my coat over her eyes and her brightly lit torch. I didn’t want her to witness some of what was being said.
Self-restraint prevailed, however, and it’s a good thing, because the situation turned out in a way that might have actually brought a smile to the lady’s lips.
The event was a hearing at which a local church, St. Barnabas’, was asking the City Council to give it the go-ahead to let three vehicles that had become home for down-on-their-luck families stay in their parking lot at the end of Trinity Avenue overnight. It would provide some stability for them, especially the children.
“We saw a need that was not being addressed,” said the Rev. Valerie Valle, the church’s rector. “We decided we were not going to sit by and wait for someone else to do it.”
What a notion! But it was not as easy as simply making the decision. Church members had to plan and plot and maneuver to make sure all the various government agencies, including the police, were on board.
This they did, and they laid out their proposal for the council, in detail so elaborate that it would have no doubt perplexed the 12 apostles and their leader. I can imagine Thomas, James and the others scratching their heads and saying, “These people are hurting. Can’t we just do this?”
But those guys didn’t live in the modern era of zoning and permits.
Enter the neighbors
As thorough as church members were with that bureaucratic part of their effort, portable toilets and curfews turned out to be the least of their problems. They also had to face down the neighbors.
When the first neighbor stood up and began, “I really care about the homeless,” I waited for the “but,” which swiftly followed, and then thought to myself, “here it comes, all together now, lustily and in unison, ‘THIS IS THE WRONG LOCATION!’ ”
I was not disappointed. It was after the third or fourth “this is not the right place” that I had to force myself not to commit my churlish would-be act of vandalism against Lady Liberty.
The arguments against the project this time were really something. Of course, there were the usual NIMBY (not in my back yard) warnings about dangerous traffic (what? three cars?) and crime (despite the church saying it would vet the people being helped in order to weed out undesirables, and the police being involved).
But there were novel twists as well, most notably the neighbors’ complaint that the Trinity Avenue proposal would somehow hurt the homeless people it was supposedly designed to help.
“I’m ashamed the city of Arroyo Grande is even tackling this,” said one, who accused the city of trying to “hide the homeless” and “condon(ing) sleeping in vehicles.”
One neighbor chastised the church for “forcibly involving me” in their charitable work, and another complained of “having imposed on us the good intentions of several people.”
Others said three is too small a number of families to help, given that there are close to 4,000 homeless in the county, and suggested other, larger places for this undertaking that could handle a larger crowd.
There’s one problem with that: None of the other places has offered their property.
“We’re looking at this location for one reason and one reason only,” said Councilman Jim Guthrie. “St. Barnabas’ stepped up.”
Indeed the congregation did, and so did many of their supporters in the community, who, after a three-hour hearing, ended up outnumbering opponents 2 to 1. A couple of those who backed the program also are neighbors of the church.
“It’s in my backyard, and it doesn’t bother me,” said one. “Let the church have a chance.”
Proponents clearly had a greater grasp of the human tragedy that is gripping not just Arroyo Grande, but the nation. People are losing their homes. Children are being raised without shelter.
“It’s heartbreaking to think that these kids may be sleeping in a car,” said one. “I’m sorry,” she repeated, in an effort to get through to opponents, “but they’re sleeping in a car.”
Councilwoman Caren Ray, a teacher who understands the poignancy and tragedy of homeless children in the classroom, reminded the audience that “when they can’t sleep, they can’t learn.”
Council members signed off on the plan, although they shortened its probationary period. But they did something else as well — they issued a challenge, to churches in particular, but to all of us, really.
Just about everyone agreed with the neighbors who said that three families is too small a number to bail out. St. Barnabas’ has shown the way, speakers said — now it’s time for others to step up.
“I think you’ll see other locations develop,” Guthrie said hopefully.
Mayor Tony Ferrara noted that “churches outreach to foreign countries.” Why can’t they do more close to home, he asked. “I would hope for more.”
“We’re married to the idea of helping people,” said Councilman Tim Brown. “Faith without action is dead.”
And, finally, a word about those neighbors who live near St. Barnabas’ and opposed this effort because they are shrouded by fears that no amount of reassurance from city, police, or church members can overcome.
They told the City Council that no project like this can succeed without the support of its neighbors. I agree. So, here, neighbors, is what you need to do: Walk up the hill, speak to Rev. Valle, and pledge to do everything in your power to make this project for the homeless work.
As one of the proponents said, it’s all about being treated as human beings. Treating others, especially those who frighten us, as human beings, somehow makes each of us more human as well.
Give it a try. It could transform you.