There are moments in the life of every community where decisions have the potential to change the very core of its culture.
Some shifts are for the better. Others are for the worse. And plenty are riddled in unintended consequences brought on in the purest interest of solving other community problems.
The city of Fredericksburg is approaching such a moment.
In March, the city proposed that social services—those working to help the community’s people in need—be given its own definition in the zoning code. Agencies meeting basic needs or offering counseling, training, case management and related services, the city says, don’t fit into the code’s currently defined “office” uses.
While choosing words to define social services carries its own set of problems, the act of doing so is not such a bad idea. Since there is always someone who doesn’t want “those people” in their backyard, the city planning staff, usually with some political influence, struggle with how to define an entity that is caring for people in need.
A productive definition could protect city interests and clarify social services sites that are consistent with the community vision. Less effectively, a definition of social services can overly restrict a broad range of assistance and unintentionally discourage the relocation of agencies trying to care for our most vulnerable neighbors.
The current proposal would require all social services to go through a public process any time they want to relocate. Trying to accomplish something at the mercy of public opinion is difficult for any entity, but for agencies that survive off the goodwill of the community, the undertaking is close to impossible.
The real estate market is volatile. Landlords need to rent their properties, and sellers need to sell. When you don’t have any money to start with, it’s hard enough to convince someone to lock in a deal. Add a three- to four-month public process subject to private citizens who don’t understand people in need, and may not even like them, and you might as well forget it. Unlike many entities that fall into a special-use permit process, the cash power and the political clout of a nonprofit is usually far below what is necessary to beat these odds.
This community more than knows what happens when the majority agrees on the need for a social service, but no one wants it in their backyard. And I’d suggest that the solution is deeper than that. The current conversation should not be about how we define social services and what hoops they have to jump through. We should be talking about what kind of community we want to be, and what that means for organized entities that are trying to improve the lives of those who live here and wouldn’t otherwise have a chance.
A social service definition with a required public process will limit the relocation and expansion of helping agencies. Even if their chances of approval are good, service groups will likely choose the status quo over the political battlefield required by a special-use permit. When these agencies pass up new service opportunities or squeeze another cubicle in the back corner, the real losers are the people in need. If social services are too restricted by government process, the less effectively an agency can respond to community needs.
When needs exist and agencies who have it in their power to do something about it can’t evolve, the more government will be asked to respond. And as we know, government will never be able to offer the quality, efficiency and creativity of any community assistance agency for the same price.
While our city debates the definition of a social service use, other areas are arguing over regulations to keep do-gooders from feeding homeless people on the street. We don’t have to do that in Fredericksburg because we have groups that have banded together to feed human beings well-balanced meals at tables in church fellowship halls.
Some other cities don’t know what to do with their chronic street homeless, the most disabled individuals who have been on the street the longest. Our community has a continuum of services that is so well coordinated that the number of chronic homeless has decreased by 58 percent in the last five years.
While other areas are stuck in public hearings, debating the worthiness of community causes and how likable their clientele may be, our city has the opportunity to stop and think about what kind of community it wants to be.
Does the city of Fredericksburg really want to halt that kind of momentum? Is controlling the location of social services so important that we want to make it harder than it already is to help people?
Don’t miss the moment.