Straus Institute Mediates Conflict Between the Community and Homeless Program
Twenty-five years ago a nonprofit organization in Los Angeles, California, began providing dinner on a street corner every night for the homeless. About a year ago, an elderly resident near the street corner was murdered and police concluded that the
murderer was probably one of about 150 transients served by the food program. The residents organized a “neighborhood watch” to make the community more secure. The leaders of the neighborhood watch began questioning whether feeding the homeless on a street corner was an appropriate social services strategy to assist the homeless. The neighborhood watch
leaders soon found that an organization of businesses in the area had similar concerns.
The residential and business neighbors impacted by the nightly gathering of about 150 homeless asked the police to disperse what they perceived was an unlawful assembly. The trash, human excrement, trespassing, and petty crimes to private property and persons caused the neighbors to perceive this humanitarian service was creating a nuisance. In response, the police began regular visits to the street corner asking for identification and determining if those present had outstanding warrants. The leaders of the homeless food program contacted Public Counsel, a public interest legal aid program, which notified the police that they were violating the civil rights of the homeless. Public Counsel threatened to file a lawsuit if the police did not immediately stop alleged intimidation of the homeless at this corner. The police ceased their efforts to discourage participation in the nightly food program. The result was a standoff between the residential-business neighbors and the nonprofit feeding the homeless, with lots of unresolved miscommunication and animosity.
The lead attorney for this project at Public Counsel had completed Straus’ Mediating the Litigated Case 10 years ago. She contacted The Straus Institute’s managing director Peter Robinson and suggested that this scenario was ripe for an extended mediation effort. Robinson recruited current mid-career students Dawn Osborne-Adams and Mark McCaslin to assist him in determining if mediation was viable and if so mediate between the various interests. After the proposed mediation was endorsed by each of the stakeholding groups, Straus accepted the project as a pro bono service.
About once a month there has been a meeting of one sort or another. Some meetings were with one or another of the interest groups to assist it in formulating a statement of core values. Another meeting only invited the local police captain and the leader of the nonprofit to share an early morning cup of coffee to exchange mutual commitments to work collaboratively in the future. The most visible meeting consisted of more than 50 participants consisting of local residents, business owners, and volunteers from the nonprofit.
There are still stark contrasts in the preferred solutions of each group. The residential and business neighbors wish that the food program would take more responsibility for how their humanitarian efforts are impacting the neighborhood; they would prefer the group provide a more comprehensive program inside a building at a different location. The nonprofit wishes the community would view its program as a community asset and support it by donating money, in-kind resources, and time.
Over the year of conversations, each group has realized that the other groups are capable advocates for their interests and will not abandon this dispute. While their differences in ideal solutions persist, they have partnered on a variety of measures to improve the current operation. Concrete measures include: a local businessperson donated the money so the nonprofit could purchase a sidewalk steam cleaner for once a week washings; the nonprofit group has done a better job of collecting and removing the garbage at the corner each night; the nonprofit has organized neighborhood clean-up days when the homeless and volunteers clean up the streets and public areas for blocks around the distribution corner. Projects that are still in the collaborative planning stage include finding a donor to provide for the delivery and removal of a trailer with toilets every evening and posting and enforcing “no loitering” signs at the distribution corner, except for the hours between six and eight each evening.
In addition to the tangible progress, the residential and business neighbors have better communication and a better understanding of the core values of the nonprofit. The nonprofit has made specific commitments to partner with the police to identify and remove the people coming to the corner who are participating in illegal activities. The police captain has provided a private phone number to the leaders of the nonprofit so they can request police support when illegal behavior is occurring at the distribution corner. The nonprofit volunteers have agreed to sign witness statements and testify in such cases.
This project will probably last a few years, but trust and cooperation are slowly replacing suspicion and hostility among the leaders of this neighborhood.