It was a community that already felt like it wasn’t being heard, and Thursday night during a meeting to discuss a planned homeless services center in their part of the city, some felt like it was more of the same.
“It’s ridiculous,” proclaimed Tiffany Moore, a 46-year resident of the Desert Highland Gateway Estates neighborhood, as city officials and consultants attempted to engage residents one-on-one. “We were bamboozled.”
Moore was one of approximately 75 community members gathered in the gymnasium at the James O. Jessie Desert Highland Unity Center hoping to have their questions answered. Specifically, they wanted to know why the city failed to meet with them before moving aggressively to purchase property off McCarthy Road for a planned homeless services center.
Several of the longtime opponents of building the facility in the neighborhood gathered outside before the meeting, marveling at the size of the turnout, but expecting nothing to change. With the property already purchased, many said the “done deal” was another example of elected officials and city staff failing to listen to their concerns.
“We know there’s nothing we can do to stop it,” said Deiter Crawford, a lifelong resident of the community who serves as vice president of the Desert Highland Gateway Estates Community Action Association.
Still, Crawford and others wanted to make their voices heard.
“We came here to voice our concerns,” Moore said. “We thought this would be an open forum. Instead it’s more like a dictatorship. …This is directly affecting our community. We have no voice to speak, no leg to stand on. You’re telling us our voice doesn’t matter.”
The hour and a half long meeting began later than scheduled, with representatives from the city and county, as well as a consultant, introducing themselves and sharing talking points meant to head off some of the criticism.
They drove the point home that the center would have security, and it would be different than a regular homeless shelter. City Manager Justin Clifton added, “The goal is housing first with wraparound services like assistance for those with mental health and substance abuse issues, as well as job training and placement.”
Periodically an audience member would raise their hand and try to ask a question only to be told by a consultant, “We’re not taking questions, that’s for the breakout session.”
Officials said those breakout sessions were to encourage more intimate conversations. They thought it would lead to more fruitful conversations if audience members didn’t have to shout to be heard in a gym with poor acoustics.
Soon it dawned on the room that this wasn’t going to be a traditional question-and-answer format. “This meeting was not what I expected at all,” said one member of the audience. Another added, “They’re talking too much.”
Officials tried to encourage those with comments to disperse to separate corners of the room to get their questions answered, but that’s when frustrations boiled over, with many preparing to leave.
One audience member in the back yelled, “I think you should take group questions! If you want to be a leader give us 15 minutes!”
Soon after, Shawnda Faveau spoke up from the front row and exclaimed, “You’re not listening! Our community is not used to being divided like this! You see how people are upset. Please listen to us first!”
Faveau, a member of the city’s Public Arts Commission, has been a resident of the neighborhood for four years. She and others felt the decision to place the homeless center in their neighborhood had been made without their input.
“We should have been notified,” she said. “These meetings should have happened months ago.”
Instead, many in the community were informed when word spread that discussion of the opportunity to purchase the McCarthy Road property had appeared on a City Council agenda in October, seemingly without warning. City officials have maintained rushing to secure the property was needed in order to seize the opportunity and secure available funds.
“I feel like we should’ve been the first people they talk to,” said 71-year-old Lillian Jackson, a Palm Springs resident of 30 years who lives across the street from the planned location. “They don’t live in this community.”
Jackson acknowledged the hardships facing homeless people, but said, “Why does this center have to be here? We already have so many problems. Why couldn’t that money be spent on improving our community?”
She repeated what many in the community have been saying for years.
“We don’t have a grocery store in walking distance, we don’t have healthcare.”
By 7:30, the scheduled end of the meeting, Clifton didn’t see it as yet another disconnect between the neighbors and city leaders, and he vowed to continue attempting to engage the community.
“We approached this meeting hoping to have more intimate conversations, instead of forcing everyone to have only a few seconds at the mic. I think we succeeded,” Clifton said. “It may seem rushed from a certain perspective, but we’ve discussed this in three or four City Council meetings.”
He conceded that the city leadership needs to look at how they can change up the format for future meetings. Another is currently planned for March 15.
“We thought the best strategy was to move forward,” Clifton said. “I’ll circle back with my team and try to find ways to meet the community’s expectations. We’ll be trying to think of what other kind of forums we can put together to fix what wasn’t met tonight.”