Greg Harton: The good and the bad

Homeless community a great concept, but neighbors nervous

Posted: October 30, 2017 at 1 a.m.

Can a good idea be a bad idea at the very same time?

The other day I was listening to NPR's Fresh Air featuring an interview with Farhad Manjoo, who is the technology columnist for the Wall Street Journal. Speaking with interviewer Terry Gross, Manjoo said his "default" attitude about technology had shifted over the years. In the past, he said, his reception of new technology tended toward optimism for how it might contribute to society in a positive way.

"And my own view has shifted on that," he said. "I think that we should all be more skeptical of the unseen and longer-term potential dangers of these technologies before we kind of rush to embrace them.

"And my default view is no longer sort of optimism. It's more -- it's, like, skepticism and just a more balanced view of, like -- like, this thing could be big. It could be important. But it could be important in positive ways and plausibly very negative ways and that we should consider sort of both of those things."

He cited Google as an example. Having a powerful search engine that makes information accessible to the entire world sounds great. But Manjoo contended Google has also fed the rise of conspiracy thinking in America because "anyone can produce some piece of content that questions some completely valid fact about the world."

The good and the bad, and maybe even some ugly in there.

Doesn't it sound like a great idea that certain people should be on a government list that disallows their purchase of guns when a background check turns up a concern? Surely that would keep guns out of the hands of those who would inflict harm, right? But we've got some experience with government lists in our nation's history, enough so that it's reasonable to ask who gets to make those lists, and who sets the criteria for the people who should be on those lists, and what criteria is valid. Many would agree mental illness might be a determining factor, but that term covers a wide range of conditions from anxiety to depression to bipolar disease to schizophrenia. Being gay certainly never had any bearing on one's ability to safely handle a gun, but medical professionals once upon a time included homosexuality on a list of diagnosable mental disorders.

Remember the House Un-American Activities Committee started in 1938? Identifying people who wanted to destroy our nation's way of life was a good idea to a lot of Americans. Then the effort spread, unnecessarily ruining the lives of many Americans with unsubstantiated claims to the point that President Truman cited the committee as the "most un-American thing in the country today."

Such good and bad ideas happen locally, too. A prime recent example is the proposal by ServeNWA Inc., a nonprofit effort inspired by a desire to provide the homeless with a "campground" of small wood shelters that could serve as a first step toward transitioning them out of the tents the set up in the city's wooded areas and ultimately into apartments. This fenced, five-acre property at 1954 S. School Ave. owned by the University of Arkansas has, in part because it's adjacent to 7 Hills Homeless Center, become home to several makeshift camps by homeless people. In Phase I, ServeNWA would build 20 200-square-foot shelters, campfire rings and temporary toilet facilities. It would be served by trash and recycling services and be staffed by ServeNWA. The vision is to provide critical services by local programs to the individuals selected to live at what would be the New Beginnings Homeless Community.

The concept is great, driven by a desire to provide hope and a path out of homelessness for people who would like nothing more than to have a dependable, safe place to keep their few possessions, to sleep and to just be. Homeless people are already there, and this would create a controlled environment for the ones who want to work toward something better.

It's entirely understandable, however, that somebody might be as concerned with potentially negative aspects of the proposal, and it's no surprise nearby residents would be among the most concerned.

At a recent Planning Commission meeting, nearby 13-year resident Robert Stockalper said neighbors started having problems with homeless individuals once 7 Hills moved nearby and the UA has "been totally negligent." The proposed New Beginnings project has six or seven different makeshift camps "because they can't get along."

"Their proposing to build one camp and put all these people in there," he said. "They're not going to sit around and sing kum-ba-ya, I'll tell you."

Stockalper said the "hardcases" won't be permitted in New Beginnings, but they will be just outside the fence.

"We're overrun down there and nobody's doing anything about it," he said. "These are not just our local people anymore. They're hearing about all the stuff we've got down there and they're coming from everywhere."

The proposal returns to the Planning Commission Nov. 13. Commissioner Matthew Hoffman told his fellow commissioners such a project can't just be discussed for south Fayetteville. He challenged the commission to be prepared to approve similar projects in other areas of the city if they're willing to approve one for south Fayetteville.

Good idea? Bad idea? It's a mixture of both. Then people also have to ask another question: What happens if nothing is done?

Commentary on 10/30/2017