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‘NIMBY’ mentality: not only wrong, but damaging

An abandoned building with boarded-up windows. Near the relocated Camp 210 some businesses have boarded up their windows, a sign of an upsurge of the problematic NIMBY mentality. // Photo by Kelly Lacy

By Finn Calvert

Love thy neighbor.

This age-old proverb seems simple enough, but even Bellingham residents struggle to abide by it.

Over half of the city’s population now views homelessness as the biggest issue in the community, according to a survey from Western Washington University’s Center for Economic and Business Research. Countless residents have contributed to the community efforts to provide aid. 

Unfortunately, the “Not In My Back Yard” or NIMBY mentality is still prevalent. 

The mentality is characterized by residents of a neighborhood viewing a new development as unsavory, unwanted or inappropriate for their community. 

These sentiments can be seen in the reaction to the relocation of Camp 210.

“Why should the Puget Neighborhood have to host most all of the temporary housing solutions for Bellingham?” Scott Smith, a Puget Neighborhood resident, said during the public comment section of the City Council meeting Feb. 22, 2021. 

“Who can drive by these fields and say they want this in their own backyard?” Smith said. 

This mentality is indicative of NIMBYism at large. The problem occurs when people view their neighborhoods as the “host” of houseless people, and they inherently exclude houseless folks from that community. This terminology labels them as outsiders and strips them of their right to belong. 

Every human being who lives in our community is a member of it. The qualifications for community member status do not start with homeownership. 

Not only is the NIMBY mentality exclusionary, but it also works to hide the inequities and shortcomings of our society. 

Jason Wasserman, a professor at Oakland University who studied homelessness, spoke on this issue.

“One of the things that public space is most useful for in terms of a true civil society is representing the reality of who we are collectively,” Wasserman said. “The fact of the matter is who we are collectively in this country is a dramatically unequal society that has not done nearly enough to address poverty.”

In 2018, 44,257,979 people in the United States and 14.1% of Washington’s population lived in poverty according to PovertyUsa. These numbers have increased during the pandemic, especially among already disadvantaged groups. 

When people express a NIMBY mentality, they work to hide this reality from view. When encampments leave a neighborhood, the residents don’t find homes, they just move. You’re not solving the problem when you kick people out of their tents, you’re just allowing yourself to ignore it. 

The sweep at city hall on Jan. 28 shocked many in the Bellingham community. The militarized response showed the true violent capacities of our local law enforcement. 

When NIMBYism is deployed, more violent sweeps can be justified. Sweeps further displace people and cause even more hardships for houseless folks, said Sasha Spence, a volunteer and resident at Camp 210. Even the mere threat of a sweep can have profound impacts.

“The fear of having to move all the time for a lot of people out there who’ve got PTSD, that’s really, really triggering for them,” Spence said.

When sweeps do occur, items are lost, services are harder to utilize and communities are eroded, Spence said. 

Instead of employing this exclusionary mindset, Bellingham residents should work to include houseless people in their community and problem-solving efforts.

“If we think in the way that we all have similar values, we’re just differently positioned in the system, maybe there’s a way to build some commonality around how to manage these diverse spaces,” Wasserman said. 

Houseless people know what they need, and where they need it. Homeless encampments are not set up to intentionally aggravate a neighborhood — in fact, that’s probably the last thing they want to do. 

For Spence, the message to those with the NIMBY mentality is simple. 

“Stop and look at it from a different perspective,” Spence said. “That could be your child, your aunt, your cousin. Anyone could become homeless.” 

So next time you walk by Camp 210 at Geri Fields, don’t scoff at their belongings. Don’t shake your head at the campfires. Give them a smile, give them a wave and welcome them to the neighborhood.

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