From a Truck Stop to a Home: How to Facilitate Community Connectedness

Government agencies partner with local residents to solve community problems, design new projects, coordinate beautification efforts, and keep lines of communication open. As a longtime city employee, I have worked on many community “outreach” or “engagement” projects over the years. One conversation I had with a resident had a profound impact on my work perspective.

“We’re all just passing through…”

I was attending a family festival at a large apartment complex, when I noticed a resident holding his baby and watching the late-afternoon festivities from a grassy knoll. I decided to walk over to him and strike up a conversation.

“So how do you like living here?” I asked after a brief introduction.

“It’s OK.” He shifted his baby to his other arm and continued: “I mean, it has its good moments, but I don’t want to be here forever. Nobody wants to live here, but it’s the cheapest place in town. Most people are here only because they have to be; we’re all just passing through.”

He explained that once he starts making a little more money, he would move his family to a “nicer” neighborhood. His current neighborhood, the one in which we were standing, consisted of several small, stacked-up apartments within huge housing complexes. Multiple families were living in close quarters, and teenagers with shaved heads and baggy pants socialized on street corners. Trash bags surfed gusts of wind until they became stuck in chain link fences, and last night’s graffiti appeared on previously clean light poles. Produce purveyors signaled they were open for business by throwing open the back doors of their trucks. Stray dogs zigzagged down the sidewalks next to busy streets that were crammed with parked cars.

The gentleman and I finished our conversation and parted ways, but his words reverberated in my head as I continued my walk around the festival grounds. The weather was unusually warm for March, and the breeze carried a noticeable smell of auto exhaust. Kids were running about laughing and yelling, and a Bingo caller’s voice echoed over a loudspeaker “O-72, B-three…” Just then, I had a “Bingo!” moment of my own.

This neighborhood is a truck stop.

I don’t plan to be here long so why bother investing in my community? Why make it better? I don’t even like this place. I’ll be gone soon, hopefully. I won’t have to fight for parking or worry about my daughters walking home from school. I will leave it all behind.

My “bingo moment” prompted me to dub this thinking a “truck stop mentality.” I certainly do not fault people for thinking this way. After all, most of us want to live in safe, peaceful neighborhoods and provide better lives for our families, especially our children. Of course, not every resident I spoke to that day thought this way; many expressed pride in their neighborhood and enjoyed living there. However, several residents, there and in similar neighborhoods, expressed a desire to get “up and out” as soon as they were able. I stopped to seriously consider the profound affect a “truck stop mentality” has on a neighborhood:

This is a Truck Stop…

This is my Home…

Where I have to stay for now

Where I can live and thrive

I don’t know my neighbors

We are all in this together

I am just passing through

I am putting down roots

Get out of my way

Let’s work together

Soon I’ll be able to leave these problems behind

I am staying here, so let’s fix this

As government employees, how can we work with the community to turn truck stops into homes?

I served for a time on the board of the California Parks and Recreation Society. Our motto was “Creating Community through People, Parks, and Programs,” and our mission was to create safe, thriving, family-friendly communities; places where people feel connected, where they care about each other and look out for each other. Of course, there is no such thing as a perfect neighborhood. However, the difference between a “truck stop neighborhood” and a neighborhood filled with homes becomes evident when challenges arise. What does a neighborhood do when faced with a problem or crisis event?

Do residents put bars on their windows? Move? Get a big dog? Put up another fence?

Or do they work through the issue by pooling their resources and talents, and by reaching out to local government officials, law enforcement, or other community partners for assistance?

My goal as a civil servant is to facilitate community connectedness. This is not always an easy task as different neighborhoods have unique problems and available resources. However, I have discovered a few common steps we can apply to different situations that work well:

  1. Build Relationships – Get to know residents personally, and encourage neighborhood interaction through well-coordinated activities. Remain engaged and visible – put on your party hat and walking shoes and participate!
  2. Identify Assets – Ask residents these questions: “What would you be willing to do or teach to improve your neighborhood? Who else do you know that would like to help?” Then work with them to make it happen. (Visit abcdinstitute.org for more asset-based community development tips and tools.)
  3. Fight Blight – Make graffiti, abandoned vehicle, and trash removal a priority. Set up an easy-to-use reporting mechanism for residents and property managers.
  4. Empower the People – Recruit volunteers, faith-based communities, local service providers, business owners, and others willing to provide no-cost assistance and resources.
  5. Think Outside the “City Facility” Box – Talk to apartment managers about using vacant apartments to conduct classes, provide homework-tutoring sessions, and carry out other outreach activities.
  6. Share Great Ideas With Others – When you find a new way to turn a truck stop into a home, share it with others in your city, county, and/or state.

Hope Horner is part of the GovLoop Featured Blogger program, where we feature blog posts by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Blogger posts, click here.

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