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The neighborly thing to do
Together, the Rescue Mission and its Belmont neighbors are successfully tackling chronic problems that, in the past, cast them as foes.
Monday, February 4, 2013
Who are these people? The vagrants, the drunks, the campers with their litter, drug deals and public urination fouling the Belmont neighborhood.
A year ago, people in the section of Southeast Roanoke closest to the Interstate 581 exit would have sworn the unsavory element belonged to the Rescue Mission.
And they wanted its CEO, Joy Sylvester-Johnson, to quarantine the riff-raff, wall off the Rescue Mission’s property and hire armed guards to patrol. But they were wrong. Sylvester-Johnson knew “they are not our people,” and she strongly believed the mission’s ministry builds relationships, the antithesis of hiring armed guards.
But she, too, didn’t know the answer to the question: Who are these people, other than that they were the source of fear that was deepening the wedge between her ministry and the neighbors? That wound had to heal. Last year, the groups, along with city police and other officials, joined in a conflict resolution process that had people talking with, rather than at, each other.
While some will forever hold fast to their prejudices, most found a commonality in their aim to make their neighborhood a place where all could live peaceably without feeling hassled.
Sylvester-Johnson hit on a healing path that is mending the rift, improving the look and feel of Belmont all the while reaching out to society’s outcasts so that they, too, can find an acceptable mooring. Instead of armed guards looking to catch people doing wrong, in October, the residents and staff of the Rescue Mission began hourly “engaged presence walks” to share with all they encounter neighborly news of things like flu shots and haircuts at the Rescue Mission, the day’s menu or where they might go to find a warm coat. Their Belmont neighbors joined them. Together, they sought to bring comfort to people who behave well and make uncomfortable those who do not.
When they come upon people trespassing on private property, they direct them to benches where they can sit in peace. On their routine walks, they drop by all the hiding holes. They’ve disposed of dealers’ stashes, poured out untended bottles and convinced the owner of one convenience store to stop displaying drug paraphernalia and selling booze to those already intoxicated.
Most of all, the alliance, neighbor working with neighbor, has helped to dispel long-held stereotypes. Sylvester-Johnson said some neighbors after walking with the mission’s residents confided they no longer feared the homeless; it was just the chronically homeless men who are the problem. So she sent chronically homeless men to work with the neighbors on a housing project, who were surprised then to learn those nice men fell into a category they had loathed.
The neighborhood walks are forming bonds and opening communication in ways not thought possible just a year ago. In doing so, fear, too, may soon find no quarters there.
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