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Thursday, Nov. 3, 2005 03:18 pm

Finding the homeless shelter a new home

Leaders need to step forward. The Salvation Army needs help.

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Sometimes it takes a defeat to get everyone’s attention and gather more resources to start building toward a victory. That is an optimistic assessment of the battle over the location of the proposed Salvation Army community center and homeless shelter. Fortunately, it is shared by both sides of the controversy. Here’s what we’ve learned so far. My backyard is important. The people who castigate others for being NIMBYs are probably NIMBYs themselves, who happen to not live where a homeless shelter is proposed for their back yard. We who live in low-income neighborhoods get tired of hosting more than our fair share of social services. Agencies say that they want to locate in low-income neighborhoods because they serve low-income people but also because the property is cheap. Well, the property is cheap because low-income people live there, social-service agencies locate there, and real-estate agents won’t show there. The only thing that’s going to break the cycle is for well-organized neighbors to stand up and say, “No. This is a fine organization proposing a fine facility, but it needs to go somewhere else.” That’s what the Oak Ridge Neighborhood Association did in this instance, mustering all the arguments, interest groups, and legal clout at its command, just like Panther Creek going after Wal-Mart. They seem to have beaten the proposed J. David Jones Parkway location on the north edge of town. Good for them. Springfield needs to respect its neighborhoods. Springfield needs to find the Salvation Army a new home. Defeat of the current proposal, which appears likely, doesn’t settle the matter.  “ ‘No’ is part of the answer,” says Capt. Deon Oliver, head of the Salvation Army in Springfield, “but only part.” After receiving little City Council support for the Jones Parkway site, Salvation Army officials admit that zoning approval is a long shot now. They seem ready to move on toward finding a different location. “Are we open to being on a different property? Absolutely,” says Oliver. But they need help. “This is not just the Salvation Army’s concern,” says Oliver. “City of Springfield, we need to address this problem.” The debate over the current proposal has made everyone aware that the Salvation Army has outgrown its 1950s building on Sixth Street, that the problem of homelessness is growing, and that the Salvation Army is proposing a fine facility, a true community center of which the shelter will only be a part. “Springfield can no longer plead ignorance,” says Oliver. “The entire city will need to deal with this issue.” The Oak Ridge Neighborhood Association has already offered the Salvation Army a list of alternative sites that might work, and the city’s homelessness task force is working on its own list. The Salvation Army has been working under the notion that for zoning reasons, it must locate in a residential area, but there’s no good reason that requirement can’t be changed for the right site, which should be in the central part of the city. This is going to require more than lists of vacant properties and a zoning change. To avoid a repeat of the opposition met by the current proposal, leaders need to step forward and help the Salvation Army make things happen. Oliver says that, nationwide, the Salvation Army is no stranger to opposition, but in other cities a philanthropist will step forward to donate land or a civic leader with enough influence to bring parties to the table will take on the project. That hasn’t happened in Springfield — not yet. “Maybe that’s because we haven’t reached a crisis yet,” says Oliver. Because he’s heard so much praise for the work of the Salvation Army during the controversy, he remains optimistic. “While this has been a very stressful time, it has also been a very affirming time,” he says. “I believe the end result will be good.” “We need to get to work now to turn this into a positive,” says Phil Douglas, president of the Oak Ridge Neighborhood Association and a friend of the poor while a defender of neighborhoods. “We need to move on now and help the Salvation Army grow.” I tell him that the Salvation Army says that talk is cheap. “It’s going to be more than talk,” he replies. “We’re going to get involved and stay involved.” These former foes will make good allies, and I bet that neighborhood leaders will soon be out on the streets with bells and kettles, trying to make good on their pledge. Maybe this controversy will get the rest of us out there, too.