- Not in My Backyard
For a few months one summer when I was a kid, a homeless man slept in the alleyway behind our home. Our backyard shared a fence with a two-story Methodist church that went largely unused during the week, and the small concrete patio beneath its back stairs made for a quiet, inviting shelter from the rain. The man generally came and went under the cover of night, so we didn’t notice him much, but occasionally we’d hear him cough, or smell cigarette smoke wafting over the fence, and we’d know he was back again. I don’t remember actually fearing him, per se, but fearing the idea of him—that someone could so easily breach our quiet suburban bubble. And I don’t know how many nights he spent sleeping on the other side of our fence, but I do know that whenever we caught wind of him in our backyard, Dad would pick up the phone and call the police. I felt bad for the man on those nights, and I know Dad did too, because after he hung up the phone, he always stuck his head out the window and hollered, in a voice that was not unkind, that the cops were coming and he ought to get moving.
Twenty years on, and I found myself in Lubbock, Texas, with my own boys at a local children’s festival held on the sprawling back lawn of the Mahon Public Library. We’d been coming to the library for several months, and the cozy children’s section had begun to feel a little like home—its soft bean bag chairs and colorful posters, the endless pages of silly children’s books, and the kind librarian who gave us stickers. On this day we were queued up for a giant inflatable castle when I noticed a rolled sleeping bag wedged in the branches [End Page 61] of a tree a few feet away. Beside that tree, I saw two bedrolls perched in the limbs of a large juniper and, a few yards farther down, another sleeping bag tucked beneath some bushes. The boys’ turn arrived, and as they jumped into the inflatable castle, I studied the faded fabric of a sleeping bag resting in the branches beside me, and I felt that same discomfort I’d felt years before when that homeless man showed up in our backyard. Only, I couldn’t help feeling that maybe this time, the intruder was me.
The pejorative label “Nimby” is short for “Not in My Backyard” and is often applied to individuals in a community who support the building of prisons, landfills, and homeless shelters, as long as such development happens as far from their own interests as possible. “Nimbies,” as they are sometimes called, recognize the need to deal with social problems but don’t see themselves as part of the solution. Let the problem be fixed, they say, but let someone else fix it. It is Nimbyism that shuffles homeless populations around cities, providing one short-term solution after another, and allows city councils, businesses, and neighborhood organizations to justify policies and practices aimed at “keeping neighborhoods safe” without addressing the reality of people living on the street. It is Nimbyism that feeds the false notion that we can do nothing ourselves and still expect the world to improve around us. In short, Nimbyism institutionalizes the idea that the proper response to a homeless man sleeping in the alley behind my home does not involve a blanket or a bowl of soup or even a call to the local shelter, but a call to the police.
After that library festival, I asked around, and it turns out that for many years a rotating handful of transients had been living on library grounds in Lubbock, taking advantage of the indoor air conditioning by day and the warmth of the outdoor mechanical equipment by night. City leaders have long opposed any publicly funded shelter, but the Salvation Army and other ministries have provided meals and limited bed space for those willing to accept a curfew and [End Page 62...