From NIMBY to Neighbor: How Community Engagement Can Help Solve Homelessness

Posted by Steve Machesney
Steve Machesney


Solving homelessness can feel overwhelming and insurmountable. But Chuck Flacks, the Homelessness Services Coordinator for the City of Goleta, California, is convinced that we know how to solve homelessness it's a matter mustering the political (and public) will to do it. With eight years of experience under his belt, Chuck has seen firsthand what works and what doesn't when it comes to addressing homelessness.

Chuck recently shared his insights with FlashVote with his trademark sense of passion and urgency. "The solution to homelessness is housing," he declared, cutting straight to the heart of the matter. It's a simple statement, but one that challenges the misconceptions that many people hold about what homeless individuals really need. Check out the full-length webinar featuring Chuck: Getting Past the Status Quo: Building Public Support and Political Will for Homelessness Action.

Housing and Services Not Hoops

Too often, we assume that homeless people need to jump through hoops before they're ready for housing. We think they need to get sober, or receive mental health treatment, or prove themselves in some way. But Chuck argues that this approach is all wrong. "Services tend to work much more effectively when someone is stably housed," he explained. In other words, housing isn't a reward for good behavior – it's a basic necessity that everyone deserves.

But Chuck also recognizes that housing alone isn't enough. Every homeless person has a unique story and a unique set of challenges, and the solutions we offer need to be tailored to their individual needs. Some people may need intensive support services, like mental health treatment or substance abuse counseling. Others may simply need a helping hand with rent and other basic necessities. The key is to listen to each person's story and respond with compassion and understanding.

Of course, tackling homelessness is a team effort. Chuck emphasizes the importance of coordination among stakeholders, from churches and community groups to police and fire departments. By working together and sharing data, these groups can develop a comprehensive understanding of the problem and identify effective solutions.

Resident Engagement is Critical to Success

However, one of the biggest obstacles to solving homelessness is the "not in my backyard" (NIMBY) mentality that persists in many communities. When new housing developments or homeless shelters are proposed, residents often push back, citing concerns about property values, crime, and quality of life. Chuck has seen this firsthand in Santa Barbara County, where he's attended contentious public meetings and witnessed the fear and anger that can arise when change is on the horizon.

But Chuck also knows that overcoming NIMBYism is essential if we want to make real progress on homelessness. "Public misconceptions about affordable housing are one of our biggest challenges," he said. "And to some extent, creating homeless-only housing projects, so where you take homeless people and put them in a hotel, it's great for delivering services. It's problematic because you concentrate poverty in one area."

The solution, Chuck argues, is to prioritize community engagement and resident feedback. He recommends using a tool like FlashVote that involves surveying a representative panel of residents to learn what their preferences are around homelessness solutions. This approach prevents the noisy few from hijacking the process when decisions are being made.

By involving the community in the planning process and gathering input from a diverse range of stakeholders, we can build trust, dispel myths, and create solutions that work for everyone. "The degree to which we can develop tailored interventions for people on the streets is really critical," he said. "And you're seeing evolutions in mental health, you're seeing evolutions in drug and alcohol treatment that recognize this."

Functional Zero is in Our Future

Chuck points to the success of Santa Barbara County's Continuum of Care as a shining example of what can be achieved through collaboration and community engagement. "We now have a very robust continuum of care," he said with pride. "We have an open data system. We opened up our HMIS system so that we're now sharing data across the county. We have a process of identifying where and when and how we can build things to support homeless people." It's a testament to the power of transparency, data-driven decision making, and resident feedback.

Looking to the future, Chuck is filled with hope and determination. "Our hope is to achieve something called functional zero, where homelessness is a one-time experience, it's ended quickly, and people are taken from the streets into housing very rapidly," he said, his voice ringing with conviction. "And I think our county can do it. We have the right amount of resources and the right coalitions built."

Easy Not Simple

Chuck knows that solving homelessness won't be easy. It will require communities to challenge their assumptions, confront their biases, and engage in difficult conversations with one another. It will require them to prioritize affordable housing and supportive services, even when resources are tight and competing priorities loom large. It will require everyone to work together as a community, with empathy, compassion, and a willingness to listen to diverse perspectives.

Tags: citizen engagement, homelessness