Social service providers increasingly are recognizing the benefits of integrating homeless women and children, psychiatric patients and youthful offenders into residential communities.

Locating support networks close to or where the people who need them live makes sense, agencies say. Transportation is no longer an issue and help is close at hand in a crisis.

But established neighborhoods are often wary of low-income or challenging newcomers. So, looking for ways to ease the tensions and avert problems the arrival of these “group homes” often engender, a pilot program in Portland used mediators to get neighbors, developers and facility residents talking about their worries.

Because of client confidentiality considerations, agencies often cannot provide people with much information about a given facility. But when they can, the Siting Dispute Resolution Program appears to offer a chance for understanding.

The eight-month pilot project that ended in September brought neighbors, developers, social service workers and residents of proposed facilities together to hash out worries and ease fears. Often, nonbinding “good neighbor agreements” were written up that outlined everyone’s responsibilities and how the groups would work together.

“Siting is a huge issue,” said Judith Mowry, who helped mediate the eight test cases. “We have a community struggling with complex issues, like How much citizen involvement do people have? How do we provide services to folks that need assistance? How do we deal with adjudicated youth and psychiatric facilities? How do we deal with serious felons who are living in residential neighborhoods?

“This is the first project we’ve seen in the country that tries to bring in collaborative processes to address these challenges,” she said.

Mediators say the first step in resolving a dispute is giving participants the tools for dialogue. There is a longing and a need in many communities to talk about policy and how to share the load of these facilities but little understanding of how to begin, they say. “We’re not skilled innately in dealing with the collaborative process,” Mowry explained. Helping neighbors design and facilitate public meetings and making them work are some of the skills mediators say they can teach people facing difficult changes.

For example, Portland mediators worked hard to hammer out an agreement between developers of a proposed low-income housing project and residents of Portland’s Boise neighborhood. Upset with how similar facilities nearby were being managed, neighbors in the low-income community were at odds with the idea of another one.

“During many hours and weeks of work, we identified the concerns and developed common areas of agreement,” said Barbara Hunt, who coordinated the resolution program for the city. “We then came up with a workable neighborhood agreement that talks about how the facility would be managed, and how they would work together.”

In the Concordia neighborhood, mediators brought developers planning to build a drug store together with neighbors who wanted a grocery store. By teaching the neighborhood association how to leverage the builder’s interest in retail development with their own, the neighborhood got an agreement for a small grocery adjacent to the drug store.

Critical to this kind of success is getting people together before building plans are finalized and permits secured, Hart said. Often, neighbors are notified when the planning process has already begun. Change at that point is costly and difficult.

“Having a conversation early means the antagonism goes way down,” Hart continued. “People’s fears are addressed and reduced, and the stereotypes are able to be put aside because they’re dealing with real people.”

Of course, not every case has a picture perfect ending. Mediators were brought in at the late stages of a conflict between neighbors and a local convalescent care facility that wanted to expand. They worked with developers, the facility and the neighbors and came up with a revised plan that moved parking to the back of the building, modified the front of the facility and those units that offended neighbors.

Nevertheless, the groups could not agree on the size of the facility. The city ultimately gave the developers the okay for the size they wanted. Hart still sees the benefit of having gotten everyone together.

“They didn’t get 100 percent but [they got] the opportunity for tinkering that wouldn’t have happened otherwise,” she pointed out. “And that’s part of the goal. Maybe people won’t always agree, but if they truly understand the point at which they agree — that’s what we’re looking for.”

Affiliated with the city’s Office of Neighborhood Involvement, the siting program has received permanent funding. The office has also been selected by the non-profit group Partners for Democratic Change to receive additional training and assistance in collaborative problem solving.

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by American News Service
© COPYRIGHT 1999 The American News Service

BERKSHIRE PUBLISHING GROUP: The American News Service (ANS), founded by Frances Moore Lappé and Paul Martin DuBois in 1995, was a project of the Center for Living Democracy. The content of these articles, which ranges from environmental action to food pantries, remains extremely relevant. Because these articles can be of great value to researchers who are studying a wide range of community issues, Berkshire Publishing, with the kind permission of Frances Moore Lappé, is also making the full archives available online, free of charge.