About a week ago I took my dogs for a walk along the alleyway east of Lincoln Boulevard. I started at Pico Boulevard and made my way down to Ocean Park Boulevard. Along the way I saw much activity in the alley. Some people were sitting and drinking from brown bags, others appeared to be under the influence of drugs. Some individuals seemed a little shady, and way too many souls were wandering around thinking about where they could sit and sleep for the night.
While I don’t live next to that alleyway, I do live nearby and this is my city — my home. I know that what I saw posed little or no threat to my personal safety. But it wasn’t comfortable. Really, when is it ever comfortable to encounter human suffering?
So it was no surprise to me that many neighbors were opposed to Common Ground joining the Sunset Park neighborhood. Who wouldn’t be concerned about any change in the neighborhood make-up?
Common Ground is a Santa Monica-based agency whose mission is to bring together the diverse members of our community in the fight against HIV; we offer free education, prevention and treatment programs. We are the only comprehensive HIV services agency serving the Westside. Since our founding as the Santa Monica AIDS Project in 1992, the face of AIDS has changed. And so today we serve many clients who look different from those we served back in the “early” years.
This month we began to move into our new headquarters. Lincoln Boulevard is Zone C4 — essentially a commercial zone with a huge span of acceptable uses. Our use and purpose easily fit into that zone. In fact, it is the same zone as our old location on Lincoln and Bay Street. So without further ado, we signed the lease. Our business license was granted because there simply is no zoning issue. We have not opened for business yet while we await construction permits. Clients have been notified of this but for the occasional person who may walk up, we have someone stationed at our front door to help that person with transportation so they can obtain the necessary and immediate services at other locations.
Still, a hailstorm of reaction ensued. When we, along with City Hall’s Human Services Division, sponsored a community meeting on Feb. 13, it was apparent that residents were angry and frightened for themselves, for their property values and for their children. Our former neighbors from Bay Street had much to say about our being poor neighbors. It was tough to hear but we took all the information in and spent the next few days soul searching. We know we do amazing and unique work for those with HIV. But are we good citizens and neighbors? And how can we help a neighborhood rather than create conflict?
And so with humble pie on our plates, we assessed, discussed, and decided there were constructive changes we could make. We want Santa Monica residents to know what we are doing.
First, there will be no needle exchange program at this location on Lincoln. We will continue to offer the program in our other locations because it is a proven public health intervention that prevents disease. But not at 2401 Lincoln Blvd. Secondly, we will implement security measures. We will institute patrol car service to monitor our area all night. We will also install lighting and cameras. Currently we are seeking expert advice on proper placement, coverage and best practice.
We will also hire someone part-time during the hours of our youth program to direct our youth clients away from the residential streets. Third, we will establish a regular Neighborhood Advisory Council as part of our Good Neighbor Agreement. This group will meet on a regular basis and review all records of incidents, neighborhood communications, etc. This will provide an objective assessment of our impact on the neighborhood, providing both accountability and ongoing self-evaluation of how we are doing in responding to concerns.
Detailed plans for the Neighborhood Advisory Council and the Good Neighbor Agreement are being developed by a workgroup that includes impacted neighborhood representatives, the Human Services Division, the Santa Monica Police Department, and management and board members from Common Ground.
Many of those who have voiced concern about Common Ground’s new location fear that our agency is a magnet for people who make them uncomfortable. But there are 3,300 people on the Westside who live with HIV. These people are already here, mostly concentrated in Santa Monica and Venice. Many of our clients are your neighbors. The people who walk into our doors seeking services are asking for much-needed help. They are not here to create neighborhood disturbances but to change their lives for the better. By making room in our neighborhood for the delivery of services that help people survive — and often set their lives on a new course — we can all have a positive impact on the problems that burden the neighborhood. Common Ground has renewed its commitment to serve our clients in a new and expanded facility. But with the move, we have also renewed our commitment to serve the community by making sure we don’t unintentionally create new problems for our neighbors. The Neighborhood Advisory Council and a strong Good Neighbor Agreement will help us fulfill that commitment.
Jeff Goodman is a nationally recognized expert in HIV prevention and treatment and the president of the board for Common Ground. When not walking his dogs through alleys, he can be reached at JGoodman@commongroundhiv.org