How do you resolve a public policy clash that pits compassion for the homeless against respect for one's neighbors?
Conflicts are perhaps simplier to deal with when they come with clear villains against which government must act for the greater good. Think Enron, BP or, to use a more recent example, Norfolk Southern Corp in East Palestine, Ohio.
Closer to home, city officials in Fayetteville are wrestling with an act of compassion that's developed into a public nuisance.
Richard and Gladys Tiffany own a residential property in south Fayetteville adjacent to the National Cemetery, the final resting place for thousands of military service members and their spouses. As Gladys Tiffany tells it, she and her husband "stumbled into hosting a camp of homeless people" on the property, which is not where they live. They view it as inhumane and unChristian to drive away "desperate human beings" who have no place to go.
Imagine, if you can, the difficulty of finding a place to simply exist when you have little to nothing of your own. When someone becomes homeless, it's not as though they stop occupying space on this planet. Most property owners aren't going to abide a homeless encampment. When someone with property lays out a "Welcome" mat, is it any wonder that land will attract outdoor dwellers?
Now, imagine your home being next door to a property which, if it's like so many homeless encampments, is unsightly and, perhaps, unsanitary and potentially unsafe. Are you going to let the kids out to play? And what if you're attempting a moment of reflection at the nearby grave site of a loved one only to be disrupted by a "camper" who acts aggressively or disrespectfully. What if it makes you concerned about whether you can safely stay there?
As a city leader, what should you do? Ignore the situation because of its inherent compassion or respond to the concerns expressed by neighbors and cemetery visitors? Is this a right of a property owner, to let whoever they want camp on their property? Or is this precisely the kind of public nuisance city policies must address to preserve the overall quality of life within the community?
Fayetteville regulates commercial campgrounds, but lacks regulation when a property owner is allowing their land to be used free of charge.
A committee of City Council members last week backed changes to city code to establish a definition of camping and expand the Planning Commission's role in determining the conditions under which such camping could be permitted. The city's interest -- and authority -- is public health and safety.
The city, if the measures are adopted, would require sanitary facilities such as bathrooms and running water; regulard garbage pickup; limitations on how close tents and vehicles could be to property lines; and property owners would have to seek a permit from the city. That last item would trigger opportunities for neighbors to speak out for or against such a proposal.
So is the city being inhumane? Obviously, the new regs would require a property owner to make some investments to maintain a camp site for the homeless and, I suspect, make it much more difficult to obtain legal permission for such a camp site, since neighbors would have a voice.
But should a property owner be able to open his land up as a homeless campground without expectations to address fundamental problems such a congregation of campers creates? Is Fayetteville willing to join cities like Seattle with make-shift tent cities?
One can argue whether a community has done enough to help the homeless, but solutions must ultimately be community based. Compassion isn't just giving someone a place where they can exist in poor conditions; it's working together with others to establish a path toward better conditions for the homeless and the community.