Winning Over the Neighbors

Print More

In a downtrodden neighborhood in Tucson, Ariz., La Paloma Family Services faced a struggle typical to group homes around the country: The neighbors didn’t want it there.

With the rundown house on West Navajo Road literally sinking into the ground, the staff and the male residents didn’t want to be there, either. The home had more turnover and runaways than La Paloma’s other facilities for foster and adjudicated youth.

Then La Paloma did something unusual: It turned its dilapidated property into such an asset that the neighbors now see it as a key to their community’s future. Where the locals once saw the place as a symbol of neighborhood decline, today the property is a regular gathering place for the neighborhood association, Boy Scouts and the police.

Employees rarely quit; kids rarely flee.

The turnaround happened because La Paloma won funding to transform its eyesore into a community hub. It built not only a new group home, but also a community center for the entire neighborhood.

In that and other Tucson communities, La Paloma has responded to the Not In My Back Yard (NIMBY) challenge by using its facilities and the youth to help solve neighborhood problems.

It’s a wise strategy, says Michael Allen, co-director of the Building Better Communities Network, a clearinghouse for information on handling neighborhood resistance to affordable housing and group homes. “Twenty percent of neighbors will feel you’re wonderful, 20 percent will never be in your corner,” he says. “You’ve got to focus on the middle 60 percent.”

Allen, a Washington-based lawyer, says establishing the legal right to get into or stay in a community doesn’t solve problems with the neighbors. “I can tell you how to win” in court, he says, “but you’ll also be putting vulnerable people in an area where they’re going to be the target of ill will.”

La Paloma’s approach was innovative enough for its CEO and deputy director to conduct a workshop, called “Group Homes as a Catalyst for Neighborhood Change,” at the Child Welfare League of America’s annual conference in Washington in February.

To be sure, La Paloma’s strategy has had mixed success in other communities. The struggles are hardly over.

Dual Dilemmas

In Tucson’s Amphi (pronounced “Am-FYE”) neighborhood, absentee landlords own much of the 1940s-era housing. Prostitution and drug dealing (most notably of methamphetamine) are a routine part of the neighborhood economy. Last year, Tucson police say, the approximately 3,700 homes in the Amphi area produced 10 times as many trouble calls as other nearby residential neighborhoods.

The house on West Navajo Road had been a group home for boys since 1988, when it opened as one of the Menninger Foundation’s CHARLEE Family Care programs for long-term foster care. Menninger divested itself of the CHARLEE programs in 1995, turning them over to the local groups that had run them.

In Tucson, the nonprofit La Paloma Family Services was born. La Paloma took over the dilapidated home in Amphi, so-named because it is in the Amphitheater School District. The home is still called the Menninger Group Home.

Since 1995, La Paloma (Spanish for “dove” or “pigeon”) has grown from five group homes and 35 employees to eight group homes for as many as seventy 12- to 18-year-olds, served by 85 employees. In addition, the agency says its family foster care program serves 120 youth in 98 foster families.

La Paloma, with an annual budget of $4.5 million, gets most of its referrals from state and local child welfare, juvenile justice and mental health agencies.

Back in 1998, however, the Amphi home was sinking into the ground and the building appeared to be beyond repair, says Leslie Skoda, La Paloma’s deputy director. She says the conditions of the community and the group home were primary reasons for high employee turnover and youth runaways – the latter sometimes occurring six times a week.

While the agency tried to figure out what to do about the place, a handful of Amphi residents struggled to build a neighborhood association to address the area’s problems. Their effort was hampered by the lack of a place to hold regular community meetings.

Coincidently, La Paloma was seeking a grant to build a new facility. “We didn’t have a plan,” Skoda says. “We were just putting one foot in front of the other when somebody said, ‘Wouldn’t it be cool if we could build a community center, too?’ ”

The idea resonated – at least, at La Paloma.

“We tell our staff that the way out of the [foster care] system is for kids to connect positively with others – with their friends, their school and their outside activities,” says La Paloma CEO David Bradley, who also represents part of Tucson as a Democratic member of the Arizona House of Representatives. “We want the kids to connect with the neighbors as well.”

So the agency set out to introduce the boys and the staff to the neighbors.

Meet the Neighbors

Skoda started slowly. First, she took employees and the youths to meetings of the fledgling neighborhood association, trying to establish La Paloma and its clients as part of the neighborhood. “People seemed a bit thrown off at first,” she admits.

“In the beginning, there were lots of people who were ready to blame La Paloma for the decline of the neighborhood,” says Bennett Bernal, a Tucson City Council aide at the time who now works for Pima County.

“It took a while” for the neighbors to warm up to the people from the group home, says Amphi Neighborhood Association President Rick Wicinski. Bit by bit, he says, he and other neighbors got to know the La Paloma group and to see a more positive side of the boys living at the group home.

Meanwhile, Skoda and the neighbors met at a United Way workshop that was based on the theories in a book, Building Communities from the Inside Out: A Path Toward Finding and Mobilizing a Community’s Assets. Written by the co-directors of the Assets-Based Community Development Institute at Northwestern University, the book promotes a strategy of using such assets as the ideas and energy of the residents, encourages unusual collaborations and offers success stories from around the country.

Soon thereafter, Skoda got boys from the home involved in neighborhood volunteer activities, such as feeding the homeless, doing yard work for the elderly and helping at the annual “Christmas in April” effort to fix up homes for poor residents.

The result: When Skoda later broached the idea of building a new group home and a community office and meeting space, the neighborhood association embraced the idea enthusiastically. La Paloma and the association applied for community development block grants through the city’s Community Services Department.

City officials were not enthusiastic.

“The community development people said [a grant application] wouldn’t fly,” Skoda says. “They kept asking, ‘What does a group home have to do with a community association?’ ”

“People were leery, mostly because it was a new idea,” recalls Bernal, the former city council aide.

La Paloma submitted the grant applications each year for three years. On the third try, the city approved two grants totaling $120,000 toward building a new group home and a 1,000-square-foot community center.

“They eventually got what we were saying,” says Skoda of the community services officials. “When a neighborhood is healthy, then the group home will be healthy.”

Building an Asset

Construction began in 2004 on the $450,000 project, with the rest of the funding coming from La Paloma, Bradley says. The grand opening in May 2005 drew Tucson Mayor Bob Walkup, other city officials and neighbors. The festivities included a carnival for kids and a health fair sponsored by a local community college.

The one-story community center sits on La Paloma’s half-acre parcel in front of the group home, with a 20-car parking lot and a small basketball court next to it. It has two offices, a large community room and a kitchen.

La Paloma felt an immediate impact from the new facilities and closer community relationships that they fostered. “The environment at the home changed so dramatically,” Bradley says. “It was a modern facility instead of a beat-up old house.”
The kids, he says, “connected more to life in the neighborhood instead of wanting to get away.”

Notes Skoda, “Now, we’ve got two runaways a year, and staff turnover almost went to nothing.”

While the facility is owned by La Paloma, Wicinski says the neighborhood group feels plenty at home there. Attendance at neighborhood association meetings jumped from a handful to 25 or 30 at the new center, Wicinski says. Local Boy Scouts have used the facility. In April, when Tucson police began a crackdown on drugs and prostitution in the Amphi area, they chose the community center as a place where officers could meet, strategize and do paperwork.

Now the neighborhood is improving in other ways. “In the past few months, things have gotten so much better. We’re getting new street lights and starting a neighborhood watch,” says Patricia Humphries, a 30-year resident.

She praises the boys at the home. “They’ve got a nice facility, and the children are well-behaved,” she says.

The Concept Spreads

While La Paloma’s involvement in Amphi was growing, the agency tried the same good-neighbor approach at some of its other group homes.

In the Hedrick Acres neighborhood, La Paloma faced a lengthy zoning fight when it set out in 2000 to remodel a former youth corrections facility and school that had been run by another agency that went out of business. La Paloma wanted to turn the buildings into a home for teen mothers and their babies.

Neighbors had long blamed the old facility for the area’s decline, and were somehow convinced that La Paloma’s teen mothers could also make the neighborhood worse. Some demanded that La Paloma surround the property with a 10-foot wall topped with barbed wire.

“That neighborhood showed real fear,” Skoda says.

La Paloma built a 7-foot wall as part of $500,000 in renovations, which included a central meeting area for the girls, who live in six cottages. The site, called Amparo (Spanish for “shelter” or “support”), opened in 2003.

Skoda calls it “the jewel of the neighborhood.”

“It helps when you try to have the best home in the neighborhood,” Bradley says of relations with neighbors.

Nevertheless, Skoda says many neighbors remained standoffish. “The neighborhood association still didn’t like us, but we kept coming back” to its meetings with staff and girls, she says.

Neighborhood Association President Linda Drew says she’s been won over. “Some people always say, ‘Oh, no, no, no – not a group home,’ ” Drew says. “For a time, we knew [the group home] was there, but we didn’t know much about it. Then Leslie [Skoda] contacted me.”

In a key move, the teen girls began volunteering with the Lend A Hand, a Tucson area program that provides volunteer aid and company for seniors and shut-ins. Soon, the girls were baking Valentine cookies and making Easter baskets for their neighbors.

“They showed up with cookies, and we got to know the girls,” Drew says. “It’s become a positive experience.

“People are afraid of what they don’t know. Now I feel we’re a lot more tolerant than intolerant” of the home.

At La Paloma’s home for teen girls in the Evergreen neighborhood, a far less troubled part of town, the girls have volunteered in clean-up efforts at a neighborhood park and bird sanctuary.

Can such efforts produce a welcome mat for all group homes? Probably not. La Paloma still encounters neighbors who will never accept its presence. In one neighborhood where hostility appeared to be unrelenting, the agency gave up plans to open a group home, even though it might have had the legal right to do so.

When La Paloma wants to create a new home, it looks for communities where there’s hope of positive relationships. “We don’t stealth in,” Bradley says.

Even when community relationships work well, conflicts are inevitable; the key is how the agency responds. “We try to make amends,” he says.

When a boy in a La Paloma home beat up a neighborhood kid, the boy was immediately sent to another home, Bradley says. A boy who threw eggs at a neighbor’s house was also moved.

More common are minor infractions that require less extreme reactions. “If kids cut though neighborhood yards, and the neighbors complain, we go with the kids to the neighbors’ doors and apologize,” Skoda says.

When a Hedrick Acres neighbor complained that some teen mothers were tossing cigarette butts over the fence, the girls cleaned up the mess.

Cleaning up part of a neighborhood is “the kind of thing we do every day,” Skoda says. “It sets a tone.”

David Bradley, CEO
La Paloma Family Services
P.O. Box 41565
Tucson, AZ 85717-1565
(520) 750-9667

Michael Allen, Co-Director 
Building Better Communities Network
1101 15th St. NW, Suite 1212
Washington, DC 20005
(202) 467-5730  

Building Communities from the Inside Out:
A Path Toward Finding and Mobilizing a Community’s Assets
The Institute for Policy Research
2040 Sheridan Road
Evanston, IL 60208-4100
(847) 491-3395