The community felt ripped off, strong-armed, and threatened. Hostile blogs sprung up as did signs on subway exits, in windows, and on lamp posts. Death threats were phoned in. Lawsuits were filed. It was a public relations disaster, as well as a danger to the crime victims who were supposed to find sanctuary in a neighborhood far from the one in which they had been victimized.
The agency had purchased a brownstone already zoned for multi-family use. Wiring and plumbing needed upgrading, units needed to be reconfigured, and the building needed to be brought up to code. Renovations began. The agency board and staff naively believed that this project would proceed as smoothly, quietly, and safely as had the others they had established. They were wrong.
In compliance with all laws and zoning, the agency purchased a four-family building to house no more than 20 women and children. Because of the nature of the shelter, no grand ribbon-cutting was held nor were announcements made in the media, though neighbors soon rectified the latter.
The trouble started when the renovations did. The neighbors noticed that the contractors were ethnically different from the builders usually seen in the area. Someone researched the new owners and then the cries went up: “pop-up” shelter, no public notice, sneaking into the neighborhood, endangering our children and elderly, they won’t fit in, financed by gangsters, etc. Opponents gave no weight to the fact that the residents of the shelter were to be mothers and children who were victims, not perpetrators, of crime nor did they care about the list of foundations that financed the purchase of the building.
The board chair and the executive director agreed to go to a town hall meeting at which they expected to answer questions and assuage fears. But the posters had drawn hundreds of angry people. Explanations and answers were shouted down. Luckily, the agency staff had talked to a public relations crisis counselor who persuaded them to keep calm and not answer anger with anger.
Not everyone in the neighborhood was against the shelter. Some people were ashamed of the outcry and of the apparent racism it revealed. With the whole-hearted support of the agency — but no direct involvement — those neighbors put up their own blog, organized letter-writing campaigns, and spoke out whenever possible. A parish priest collected food and spoke from the pulpit about compassion—and lost parishioners as a result. Some people courageously spoke out on behalf of the shelter.
But the agency did not rely solely on grassroots support. Pro bono legal services and consultants were gathered to assist. Former board members and founders with long experience as activists actively re-engaged with the agency and provided advice and contacts. Meetings with small groups of opposition leaders were arranged and politicians at every level contacted. The result was superficial cordiality — and the suggestion that the shelter be moved to a warehouse district. Politicians chose to remain neutral and blogs were set up as anti-shelter sentiment flourished.
The opposition overreached. They collected money to sue the agency and the city but their suits were dismissed as being without merit.
After the suit was dismissed, community opponents agreed to list all their grievances and objections. With the help of local politicians, the agency and its opponents developed a Memorandum of Understanding that addressed each and every one. Finally, the local politicians signed the MOU amid press fanfare. The tide was turning.
When the shelter “opened,” the board members and staff stepped in, literally. Rather than subject clients to potential harassment, the board and staff brought their own children to the shelter. Some spent the night; some just went in and out. When it seemed safe, real clients were moved into this haven.
As part of the MOU, the agency agreed to hold monthly forums at which problems could be addressed. Everyone was invited to speak up. Objections included such violations as tied back curtains, a Rice-a-Roni box left on a window sill, babies that were too loud. After three months, the forums emptied out and were discontinued. Opposition had tired and wore itself out.
This neighborhood tempest delayed the shelter’s opening by 6 to 9 months and the extra security — paid for by a 3-year grant — wasted $60,000 to $80,000 per year for several years.
What had helped? What was learned?
After the initial reaction, the agency created a task force, bringing in pro bono attorneys and a public relations strategist who donated his time. The agency also contacted all the shelter’s funders and continued to keep them abreast of what was happening. As a result, one funder even donated funds to add security guards for three years.
A single person, experienced and comfortable with the press, became the sole spokesperson, ensuring consistent messages. The board was involved throughout the process with one attorney on the board, spearheading the legal response to the lawsuit.
Looking back, everyone agreed that a more pro-active start might have prevented the crisis. They also realized that a number of other actions might have helped:
- Initial courtesy calls with local politicians alerting them to the shelter so that when opponents started pounding on doors, the politicians would have had answers.
- Bring local religious leaders in early, and asking their advice as to whom they needed to brief in advance.
- Use local contractors for renovation. Neighbors would have seen local workers; the workers would have been natural allies, having a job and contacts with agency staff.
Though they did not prevent the crisis, they responded effectively. They remained calm in the face of provocation, rallied their funders and Board members for resources, advice, and even their physical presence.