NIMBY is the abbreviation of the phrase, “Not In My BackYard.” It is a term used to describe the negative emotional reaction that some of us experience when we fear that other people, who belong in a group other than the group to which we align ourselves, may live near or among us.
NIMBYism is the term used as a noun as in the sentence, “Group homes for people with severe mental challenges are not welcome in this neighborhood because of the NIMBYism of its residents.”
The focus of NIMBYism can be any race, economic class or any basis upon which similarly situated people can be distinguished from other groups.
The online Merriam-Webster Dictionary states that the first known use of this term was in 1980. However, the negative emotional response to people unlike ourselves living in our neighborhoods developed long before its use in everyday parlance.
Question: How did NIMBYism develop?
Answer: How does any fear develop? Sometimes we fear the unknown. Sometimes we fear that which we cannot control. Sometimes we fear that which we don’t understand.
I believe the changes in mental health law in the State of California had something to do with the widespread development of NIMBYism.
Prior to the 1970s, mentally-ill and developmentally disabled people in the State of California could be detained without their consent for an indefinite period of time in the State mental hospitals. By 1966, “eighty-four percent of all persons in State mental hospitals [were] under involuntary commitment.” “The Lanterman-Petris-Short Act: A Review After Ten Years,” by Meredith Lenell, Golden Gate University Law Review, vol. 7, issue 3, art. 4, 8-19-2010, p. 733.
At that time, it has been said, “criminals had more due process than mental health patients.” “LPS Training Manual,” Los Angeles County Department of Mental Health, by Kathleen Piché, p. 4.
In 1967, the California Mental Health Act, co-authored by Assemblyman Frank Lanterman (R) and Senators Nicholas C. Petris (D) and Alan Short (D), was signed into law by Governor Ronald Reagan. The Act, known by the name of its co-authors as the “Lanterman-Petris-Short Act” or “LPS Act,” became fully effective on July 1, 1972. The LPS Act was codified as California Welfare and Institutions Code 5000 et seq., as amended.
The legislative intent of the LPS Act was
“To end the inappropriate, indefinite, and involuntary commitment of mentally disordered persons, developmentally disabled persons and persons impaired by chronic alcoholism, and to eliminate legal disabilities;
To provide prompt evaluation and treatment of persons with serious mental disorders or impaired by chronic alcoholism;
To guarantee and protect public interest;
To safeguard individual rights through judicial review;
To provide individualized treatment, supervision, and placement services by a conservatorship program for gravely disabled persons;
To encourage the full use of all existing agencies, professional personnel and public funds to accomplish these objectives and to prevent duplication of services and unnecessary expenditures;
To protect mentally disordered persons and developmentally disabled persons from criminal acts.”
While one of the goals of LPS was “to prevent inappropriate commitment,” mentally-ill and developmentally disabled patients were released from the State mental hospital often without access to alternative housed treatment programs. “A New Vision for Mental Health Treatment Laws, A Report by the LPS Reform Task Force,” C. Jacobs, E. Galton, M.D., B. Howard, ed., 1999, p. 8.
It was believed mentally-ill and developmentally disabled patients should be treated in the least restrictive environment possible. “LPS Training Manual,” Los Angeles County Department of Mental Health, by Kathleen Piché, p. 3.
In fact, “A New Vision for Mental Health Treatment Laws, A Report by The LPS Reform Task Force,” found that the purpose of the LPS Act was actually “to depopulate state hospitals.” p. 1.
Question: When mentally-ill and developmentally disable people were released from the State mental hospitals, why were alternative treatment centers/group homes not available for these former patients?
Answer: There were a number of reasons, including economic factors, that alternative treatment centers/group homes were not available. But the fundamental reason was NIMBYism. We did not have the will to treat and house these former patients because some of us feared having mentally-ill people live in our neighborhoods. Hence, few treatment centers/group homes were available with the result that a number of these former patients became homeless.
Question: Why is understanding NIMBYism important today?
Answer: NIMBYism is often the reason for many of the challenges service providers face when proposing new residential programs for homeless people. A local community may oppose residential programs based only on the fear of having homeless people, the program participants, within their neighborhood.
Question: How do we get over NIMBYism?
Answer: Education, understanding and compassion.
When we become educated, we can understand that we do not need to fear people simply because they have no homes and/or they have mental impairments. Once we understand people and the reasons for their current situation better, we become sympathetic to their plight. Our compassion motivates us to help them.
In the words of A New Vision for Mental Health Treatment Laws, A Report by The LPS Reform Task Force, “We have a choice: we can shut our eyes to the sight of tragedy or we can make up our minds to give people with mental illness a community structure of compassionate care. p. 3.
“Current California law emphasizes deinstitutionalization of people from long term, state-run, psychiatric hospital facilities. Today, as the original LPS proponents intended, state institutions are nearly a thing of the past. Separate and Not Equal: The Case for Updating California’s Mental Health Treatment Law, the LPS Reform Task Force II of March 2012, p. 8
Question: Why is the discussion of NIMBYism relevant now?
Answer: Because of NIMBYism, some of us now fight the building of shelters, affordable housing and treatment centers/group homes for homeless people. It is only with adequate, appropriate housing, including residential treatment programs, can homelessness end.
Question: What is the result of NIMBYism?
Answer: Homelessness is the result of NIMBYism. Without adequate, appropriate housing for people, including residential treatment programs, people will continue to be homeless.
Question: How do we rid ourselves of NIMBYism?
Answer: We can replace NIMBYism with compassion – compassion awakened through education and understanding.
Once we have replaced our fear of homeless people with compassion for their condition, NIMBYism will end.
Frank Lanterman, one of the co-authors of the LPS Act has said, “I wanted the LPS Act to help the mentally ill. I never meant for it to prevent those who need care from getting it. The law has to be changed.” Separate and Not Equal: The Case for Updating California’s Mental Health Treatment Laws, p. 7.
The law will change and homeless people will be housed and treated, as needed, as our attitudes become more compassionate. By increasing our compassion, I believe we can put an end to NIMBYism.
I look forward to your comments.
Jim Bliesner says
Very thorough analysis and historical review of the problem. There it is perfectly annotated. the story of how the state government opened the doors of “mental institutions” but FORGOT to provide funding the necessary services to insure against the worst possible results i.e thousands and thousands of people w without shelter.
I think your focus on NIMBYism is too narrow. There have been very few “affordable housing” developments totally shut down by the neighbors. At least compared to how many more have been built. The largest hindrance to building more is government funding to create the affordability. It has been there and has been taken away systematically and with almost a sort of malice.
The non profits in our community who have so courageously done everything they c an to build to meet the need have been time and time again hampered by the tightening noose of state, federal and especially city funding. For example, the City approved years ago a housing Trust Fund to provide the gap financing for homeless and affordable housing. What happened to it. The City systematically stripped away the sources of revenue. It’s like a shell game. Talk about NIMBYISM, ask the City Council about it. Ask the Chamber and especially ask the administrators of the Housing Commission who have squandered a large endowment on gifting higher level development opportunities to developers focused on profit not product…
The City Housing Commission is more interested in providing profit to private developers than building shelter for homeless and near homeless. The NYMBYism is in the bureaucracy not necessarily in the community. take a closer look. Follow the money.
Thanks so much for this thoughtful and honest analysis of a very severe problem.
Christine Schanes says
Thanks for your comment. And thanks for expressing your views so clearly.
In this post, I tried to focus on the NIMBYism that has been present in the hearts of all of us that prevents us from truly solving homelessness.
I believe that we elect politicians who reflect our own thinking. These politicians, in turn, promote policies and enact ordinances that they believe, we the electorate want. And so it is an endless circle.
My point is that without compassion for those who are different than ourselves, be they homelessness or mentally ill or both, we will never remedy these issues.