GUEST VIEWPOINT: What it means to be a neighbor

NOTE: This Guest Viewpoint was written in response to the 2022 debate regarding the Cottage Grove homeless shelter. Jennifer Ferraez is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker. 

It is a beautiful thing to feel responsible for one’s own family. It is an even more beautiful and noble thing when a sense of responsibility extends to a neighborhood and the broader community. Lately, I have pondered the question of what leads us to consider a person our neighbor. Is it living in a certain area, sharing common values, paying taxes, owning property, or having a roof over our heads that is near to theirs?

There are human beings who are unseen by many in mainstream society. Years ago, as a social worker, I was asked to be part of visioning a low-income housing project meant to support 32 chronically homeless individuals in transitioning off the streets. It was to be a "housing first" model, the concept being that people do not need to have their lives perfectly in order before moving inside; they could be given a room in low-income, transitional housing with supportive services onsite. The second part [of the housing first model criteria] is absolutely critical. It works because there are supportive services onsite to bridge people to resources in the broader community.

A couple of months before the carefully designed new building was set to open, I was informed by the County Housing Authority that an onsite manager had not yet been found to live in the building and oversee daily operations. The goal was to get everyone off the streets before Christmas so that they could spend the holiday inside.

I found myself flippantly stating that if the program organizers did not find someone to fill this job, I would just do it myself. A week later, when I was offered the position, I realized my actions needed to literally match my words and show that I would “stand behind this project.” When I was assured the office hours needed would not conflict with my “day job” as Behavioral Health Director of a community clinic, I began packing.

Among those scheduled to move into the low-income housing project were two Vietnam veterans. The two had been on the streets since returning from the war and had never again been able to piece together their lives.

There was also a woman who lost her job when she lost her ability to walk. She had ended up in a wheelchair and became so depressed that she could not manage to find herself a new identity.

I also remember a young man who was struck by mental illness in his second year of college. He stopped attending classes and lost his job when he started losing track of reality. He landed on the streets. Because he was living away from home and his family did not learn for months what had happened to their son, he landed on the streets. I met this young man at a meal for homeless neighbors. He was thin, dirty, and sad, but clearly intelligent and motivated toward healthy goals.

These are just a few examples of the people that moved into the facility for chronically homeless. There are so many stories that could be told - human stories - that each of you reading this could relate to in one way or another.

I can honestly say that it was not a seamless transition, everyone coming to live together from all our varied backgrounds, but I was truly surprised at how well things did go after a short time working on solutions together. In the two-plus years that I lived in the transitional community before moving out of state to care for my elderly parents, there were only three evictions that had to be made, and police were called for support a handful of times. Out of those, half of the calls were made by people concerned about crime happening in the neighborhood around our building (in which the residents were not involved).

In general, I saw an increased sense of responsibility from those living in the building. People felt it was an honor to have been given an apartment. They kept the building and the surrounding area clean and neat.

Some people here in Cottage Grove have recently shared concerns about a homeless shelter being placed on the edge of town where there is no accountability for individuals’ behavior and no supportive resources to help them transition out of the lifestyle of the street. Others have stated concern for a shelter being in close proximity to where people are raising families.

With a sense of responsibility for those in our care naturally comes a sense of protectiveness. With protectiveness can sometimes come anxiety and even fear. I am not writing this to say that I have the answers; I only ask you to consider the questions: If not in your backyard, then whose? If not there, then where? Would you wish that they just go away?

Throughout history, we have attempted to “disappear” certain groups of people from the face of this earth because the perception at the time was that they appeared to be something less than human. As a neighbor who loves and serves this town, I ask you, if you do not like the solutions being proposed, then please, let us work together as a community to find a solution.