Stories about life in Liddonfield housing project and its impact on the Northeast Philadelphia neighborhood of Upper Holmesburg. These true stories reveal how government policy affected the lives of real people, from the project residents to area homeowners during the 5 decades of Liddonfield’s existence. Stories and articles are written by a former resident of the project.

FIGHT THE STIGMA!

FIGHT THE STIGMA!
Rosemary Reeves, Blogger, standing on Philadelphia Skyline

Sep 17, 2012

WHAT COMMUNITY GROUPS DO WRONG WHEN IT COMES TO SECTION 8

by Rosemary Reeves


Here are some of the things neighborhood groups do wrong when it comes to Section 8:


NOT ADDRESSING THE PUBLIC'S FEAR

A community group’s typical response to the news that a housing project or people with Section 8 vouchers will be coming to the neighborhood is to react to the public’s fear.  There is nothing wrong with acknowledging that Section 8 has caused problems in other communities and wanting to address the matter quickly.  But it’s all in the message.  These meetings tend to become highly emotional.  I’ve been to some of them and I’ve seen people leave the meetings at the end of the night more upset than when they came in because the organizers did nothing to calm their fears.  Also, Section 8 tenants are talked about, but they are never talked to.  Though they are the focus of the meeting, they are glaringly absent.  

Typically, community organizers are right on the ball when it comes to informing neighbors where and when meetings about Section 8 will take place.  They keep the lines of communication open with city officials.  Little to no information about Section 8 is distributed, though, and no information about who the Section 8 tenants are in terms of demographics.  For instance, there will different issues concerning low-income single mothers than there would be for low-income adolescent boys, who will need community activities geared toward them to keep them from getting into trouble because they have nothing to do after school.  

FORGETTING TO HAVE PLAN B

Zoning objections didn't work.  The Section 8 tenants are here.  They’ve moved into the neighborhood.  Now what?  Community group organizers should have had plan B all along, just in case things didn’t turn out in their favor.  But instead, all they do is tell the neighborhood, “At least we tried.”  This is the time when community groups have tremendous power and control when it comes to blight prevention, but most give up their power instead and the result is a powerless neighborhood.

WAITING FOR SOMETHING BAD TO HAPPEN

Typically, at this point most community groups put the police on speed dial and wait for something bad to happen.  This is a self-fulfilling prophecy.  So, when the first act of vandalism occurs or the first shot rings out in the night, they invariably ask for more police presence.  That is understandable, but with budget cuts the existing police force is already short-staffed and generally they do not increase police presence on a continuing basis until crime has pretty much already taken over a certain area.  That is way too late.

FAILURE TO ADDRESS DIVISIONS IN THE COMMUNITY

A divided community is a vulnerable one.  Where there is divisiveness, expect problems.  If the neighborhood responds to Section 8 tenants who live there by treating them like outsiders in their own community, that is a recipe for disaster.

Here are what community groups can do differently when dealing with Section 8:

ASK THE RIGHT QUESTIONS

When it is determined that Section 8 tenants will move into your area, it is important for community groups to ask the right questions.  How should we prepare for the changes that are coming to our neighborhood?  How can we encourage long-time residents to stay?  How can we open some lines of communication with the low-income residents?  How many Section 8 households are considered manageable in terms of avoiding concentrated poverty in our area?  

ENCOURAGE THEM TO STAY AT EVERY TURN

If there is one message community groups should be repeating over and over is that one of the best ways to prevent neighborhood ruin is for long-time residents to stay.  Many will be tempted to move elsewhere and that is another way the neighborhood becomes vulnerable.  As they move out, more low-income residents move in and that results in concentrated poverty and all the ills that come with it.  

A word about community members who are living near a troublesome section 8 household – it’s not enough to just ask them to tough it out.  Too often, community groups abandon these unlucky people, leaving them to deal with the problem on their own when they need all the support they can get.  Community groups should serve as a helpline for these situations.  I strongly suggest they establish support groups for these homeowners where they can talk about their frustration and get some guidance on healthy steps they can take toward alleviating the situation.  Don’t leave them high and dry, or all your efforts to persuade them to stay will be futile.

OPEN LINES OF COMMUNICATION 

Invite the low-income tenants to come and see what your community group has to offer them, but first, have something to offer!  Assuming your group did their information gathering early on, say you found out that a certain number of Section 8 tenants were adolescent boys.  Your group, knowing that bored and idle adolescents often get into trouble, solicited a volunteer coach to help them form a sports team.  They’re now off the streets, thanks to one volunteer and a small effort by your community group.  

Offer the Section 8 tenants a support group they can go to as well so they can talk about any problems they have adapting to their new neighborhood.  Community groups should ask them questions, too.  How do you like the neighborhood?  What is good about it?  What is not good about it?  Are others in the neighborhood treating you well?  The old approach to Section 8 tenants is to make them feel like outsiders.  The new way is to make them feel like full and complete members of the community.  

ASK SECTION 8 TENANTS TO JOIN COMMUNITY PROJECTS

Has your community scheduled a neighborhood clean-up?  Is there a neighborhood art project such as a mural where help is needed?  Having a community event where you can use a few extra pairs of hands?  Don’t leave the low-income residents out of the loop!  Ask them to help.  Many will be happy to, but it’s all in the asking.  You may think an announcement in the local paper inviting the general public is being inclusive, but it doesn’t count if some members of the community don’t feel welcome.  The announcement should include a phrase like “neighbors of all incomes are encouraged to participate.”

Poor people do have a sense of community, perhaps an even stronger one than most affluent neighborhoods.  They are often profoundly helpful, kind and generous toward each other.  That is because in a poor community, they know their neighbor is struggling just like them and they frequently rely on each other just to survive.  It is common for them to have a sense of duty toward each other when times are especially hard.  Those stories rarely make the headlines.  

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