If we are to eliminate bullying in multifamily housing communities, and heal the community, we need to change attitudes and increase the level of mutual understanding and cooperation. We need to have pride in our community, and earn the respect of the wider community. Therefore, we need to change ourselves (managers and residents alike) and how we relate to each other. We won't achieve our goals by trying to kick out tenants or trying to fire the managers.
On the road to recovery
I know, it sounds corny, and it’s not perfect, but yes, we are on the road to recovery.
It was just over a year ago when I first told you about the bullying that was rampant among the residents and the housing authority management of the 28 families living in 14 duplex housing units on Pariah Street.
How have we begun this change from pariah status to pride over the last year? We have done this by bringing in other town organizations and agencies to help the residents with their needs, and to complement the housing authority with the challenges they must meet of maintaining an environment where we can all live together with respect and in harmony.
When I first approached our housing authority director with an offer to help him bring sanity, understanding, and caring back to our 28 families, he was at first skeptical, not willing to listen, and just treated me like he treated the rest of the tenants. I did not give up, I kept on reaching out to him, reminding him of how bad things are, and throwing out ideas that I was hoping he would think might just make a difference. After a lot of prodding, he realized my commitment to wanting us all to live in a safer more cohesive community. We began to developed a trust, and I began to understand all of his concerns, and the obstacles in his way of taking the risk to making our community a better place to live, and an easier place to manage. As we both listened to one another's ideas, we both together became advocates for change, and together we forged a plan to improve the lives of the residents, and give them as well as the housing authority a reason to feel better about who we all are.
We began by getting our housing authority to work together with our recreation department and by organizing community neighborhood cleanup activities and recreational activities for the children at the same time. This encouraged families who would normally shut themselves inside, and others without children who would just argue and fight with one another, to all come outside and participate in a street-wide community cleaning effort. Not everyone participated, but this was the beginning of building a trust that helped us all to see one another for a few moments in a different way.
The housing authority provided us with a dumpster for free, as well as rakes, bags, gloves, and most importantly their staff and equipment to help us clean up the neighborhood. The recreation department provided poster boards, paints, stickers, and pumpkins for carving. The theme for the posters was “What does home mean to me?” and each child was given a prize, and their posters were entered into a contest with other housing authorities around the country. The housing authority provided the food, and yes, some of the residents even baked goods to go with the free coffee and donuts provided by the police department who blocked off the street, gave out ice-creams, and demonstrated to the children how the Canine unit dogs find missing children and drugs.
As the police chief said, "If ice-cream and dogs make kids and their parents feel better about trusting the police, then ice-cream and dogs it will be." The police department now visits all of the neighborhoods of our community one evening a week during the summer, and the chief himself now gives out the ice-cream while the community policing officers meet and mingle with the residents. Our efforts have not only began to help our low income housing community, but now, the program is making a difference all over our town.
We have now had four clean up days, twice in the fall with a Halloween theme, and twice in the spring with an Easter theme. For the past two Christmases, the fire department has held a Christmas party for the families and children of the street, and even given out gifts with a visit from Santa on a fire truck. The fire department just held, in early October, a street-wide fire safety program, and each of the kids got to use a fire extinguisher, and we all learned what to do in case of a fire.
Progress is underway
So now you ask, where are we today, and was this just a onetime thing?
The housing authority is now training their staff in conflict management, and I mean all staff, from the managers and director to the maintenance staff. They are beginning to take our complaints of bullying seriously, and in some cases, they have worked directly with tenants and the police department to mediate tenant on tenant and even a tenant on management complaint before they could escalate. Management sarcasm has begun to disappear, and their threats to tenants via the telephone, and even in the tone of their letters has diminished.
The public drinking and loud partying with blaring music is reduced, neighbors are now inviting one another to come to each other’s parties. And some of the parents have even begun coming outside and watching when their children are playing instead of just sitting in the house not caring about the bullying and fighting that was and in some cases still is taking place among the children of the street.
Crime on the street is down, the police are not called as often, neighbors are beginning not only to respect one another, but to talk to one another and even to watch out for one another like good neighbors should. We have a long way to go—drug use, overdoses, and Narcan injections are still commonplace. But so far, so good.
I do not proclaim success, but I do pronounce us as having made a very big change, a beginning, and a place to start. We now have a model to work with, to follow, and to make even better. We now have one another’s ear, and we need to be sure that we keep on listening and talking to one another. Perhaps most importantly, we need to find ways to insure that as tenants leave, and new ones move in, and that as the housing authority staff workers leave and are replaced, they are taught to understand the progress we are making. In order to continue, we need not only their respect, their understanding, and their cooperation, but most importantly, we need their trust and commitment to wanting to live and to work in a safe friendly accepting community.
Most of us who live in public housing are not living here by choice, we live here because we are elderly, disabled, and poor. We live here because most of us need food stamps, MassHealth, or Medicare, rental assistance or subsidy. Just like in any other neighborhood, even the rich ones, some of us have criminal records, we are fighting with drug or alcohol abuse, we may be the victim of domestic violence, or have a diagnosis of mental illness.
Regardless of where we live, the one thing we need to have in our neighborhood, and we must have in ourselves, is pride, and respect for those living around us. In the end, we are all in this together, we all need one another to survive, and we will not survive and thrive if we bully one another.
Bullying is not what we should accept from children, so why should we ever accept it in ourselves or our communities.