I didn’t intend to write this post because I don’t live in Homewood and I can’t articulate what would be in the best interests of those who do.
Then I saw the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette weighed in on the matter so I thought I would, too. You can read more details here about community response to the announcement that the Animal Rescue League’s plan to relocated into a brand new facility in Homewood.
To clarify, I live in Manchester another predominantly African-American neighborhood in Pittsburgh’s Northside. Manchester is not the same as Homewood. But what we have in common in this specific situation is the plan of an animal welfare organization to build in our community.
The Western Pennsylvania Human Society (WPAHS) is located in Chateau, literally across the street (Western Avenue) from Manchester. They recently acquired a parcel of land in Manchester proper on which they hope to build an off-leash exercise area for their dogs. This parcel happens to be directly behind my home – our family is the one most impacted by this plan.
An off-leash dog area is not the same thing as a full facility, but I believe it gives me some perspective and I simply want to share some thoughts with ARL (and maybe WPAHS, too.)
First, the quality of life issue for the people in the neighborhood where you are building is important and it is equally important that they have the majority input in defining their own quality of life. Obviously, you can’t please everyone – but you can certainly listen to most people and create open lines of communication. Announcing plans is not the same thing as opening lines of communication early in the planning stages. Talking with a CDC and elected officials is not the same thing as opening lines of communication with the residents of the community. I’m not 100% convinced that ARL is listening or that they sought neighbor input in a meaningful way before announcing their plan. WPAHS bought the land allegedly using money endowed specifically for the off-leash area then announced their vision. When they did come to a public meeting, they apparently did not even write down notes of what people were saying. I have this on the authority of Ledcat who attended the meeting. So I’m also not 100% convinced WPAHS is listening. This can be rectified but it requires both organizations to actively demonstrate that they value input.
Second, it is clear that in both cases, there will be an impact on the neighborhood. So what are you giving back to offset the inconvenience and the intrusion and the potential harm? This is what I suggest
- Free routine medical care for the pets of the residents in the neighborhood. That’s a tangible benefit that will also further your own mission. It will cost the organizations some money, but it is an investment.
- A neighborhood advisory committee that meets regularly to discuss the relationship (not just concerns, but the good things, too.)
- Active, aggressive recruitment of neighbors for any job openings. I know there are not many jobs and neither plan will actually create jobs, but both organizations do hire and do hire entry-level as well as skilled positions.
- Create a youth outreach program for the neighborhood to bring the kids in proximity with the pets, educate them on animal welfare, and all the great things that come with that.
- Create a volunteer-driven program to take therapy pets to visit elders and shut-ins in the neighborhood. Bring the benefits to the people who are most vulnerable and least able to access it.
- Make sure there is a 24/7 contact for emergencies. Not an answering machine. Not 911. A way to reach someone even if it creates a burden for staff to manage this. Like an on-call service or a cell phone shared by staff around the clock.
- Ask the neighbors what they want (this should come first in the list.)
All of these things will cost money, no doubt. But again, I say that is an investment in the neighborhood and the quality of life of those who live in the neighborhood. So rather than spend the money in staff time lobbying electeds and CDC’s, go to your donors and explain why you need this funding.
I’m not thrilled at the idea of an off-leash are adjacent to my own yard where MY pets are just doing their thing. We already have issues with outside dogs charging our fence, people dumping all sorts of things (living and dead) in that isolated space and more. These are issues that could be addressed with open dialogue. That isn’t happening.
One final word – please do not use guilt. Don’t tell people living in Homewood or Manchester how to feel about animal welfare. Don’t make this about our families versus homeless, sometimes abused animals. That’s not fair and it is a classist, racist argument because you have no idea how these individual people engage animals. Don’t tell us that your mission is to help animals. We get that. But our neighborhoods are filled with human beings who aren’t being well-served by many, many institutions and it is perfectly reasonable for neighbors to demand that YOUR organization not add to that burden.
It is a dangerous step for these organizations (or their supporters) to create a false choice between animal welfare and the lives of human beings who live in the affected neighborhoods. It only makes things worse.
In case you are interested in reading further, this is my go-to example of what not to do. Soon after the WPAHS purchased property in Manchester, they parked their corporate and volunteer/staff vehicles on the lot during a Steeler game. Allegedly, they did this so they could rent their actual parking lot out to Steeler fans. Green spaces and empty lots are not parking lots. This was a massive #FAIL on their part – they literally occupied a dozen street spots and created this parking mess, both of which had an immediate impact on our lives. We lost more parking which is always a hot commodity on Steeler game days. We had a potential traffic jam in our backyard along two very tricky streets. And, had they asked, they would have realized that this brings more vandals into the neighborhood. It was disrespectful and lacked any forethought.
No less an advocate than our State Senator Wayne Fontana specifically asked the WPAHS to refrain from using this space as a parking lot. On several other occasions, they did it anyway. We’ll see what happens next fall, but this is precisely the sort of stunt that gives non-profits run by white men who don’t live in the neighborhood a poor reputation.
The key is “had they asked.” I typically park my car in our gravel spot right behind that fence on Steeler days until it was vandalized. Twice. Now I park on the street which adds to congestion. If you are going to create off-site parking in our neighborhood, you need to hire someone to patrol it during the entire game. It isn’t fair that we are exposed to more risk so you can make a profit renting out your spaces. I can’t rent out my space. See?
I could fill this blog with tales about that lot. I have historical and institutional information to share. But no one asked.
Again, I cannot speak for anyone in Homewood nor do I know if any of those residents would agree with my suggestions. I urge the Animal Rescue League to really listen to what their neighbors are saying and be proactive in their investment in the neighborhood.