Thursday, October 2, 2008

Problem Solving Ideas

Ideas about how to deal with problem properties in your neighborhood

below is a compilation of a recent training, and many years of experience, it's a lesson I have to work on almost every time I use it, because my first reaction is to REACT appropriately to a situation with the seriousness of it on my life, my family's lives and the neighborhood's lives, it's a good lesson to learn and keep practicing (also attached for those who want to print it out)

Jeanie Peterson
Director of Community Initiatives
Hilltop Action Coalition
1224 S. I St.
Tacoma WA 98405
253-383-3056 ext 112


"Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. In fact, it is the only thing that ever has." – Margaret Mead

Problem-solving as the Lowest Level

I rec’d the following message from a community member:
Jeanie, any suggestions regarding how to approach my neighbor about his dogs getting loud every night between 1 AM-3 AM? I wanted to talk to him when I dropped off the neighborhood stuff, but he is never at home when I am. I want to start off on the right foot, and would rather talk to him first before Animal Control gets involved.

The ideal plan is to meet a neighbor before you approach them with an issue, so you have a name, etc. to use when you talk about other things, and have a few facts you can include in your next conversation (i.e. “John, how is your wife’s schooling going?”, etc.). Somewhere in your first or second conversation with a neighbor, you should have the “you-can-contact-me-if-there-are-issues” talk. This can be done by saying, “what we try to do in this neighborhood is to contact each other directly if there are issues, it’s one of the best ways to remain neighborly and address things at the lowest level. So, tell them: “if my dog is ever barking (or my kids are a problem, etc.) feel free to come to me directly”. IF they don’t reply the same way, you can then ask if that would be okay with them if you contact them directly, also.

If that conversation has happened you can contact them and remind them that you had that talk and then discuss the dog, although even then it’s best to do it in a friendly, non-accusatory fashion.

On general principal I usually use the "I'm concerned about you approach", in which you find a chance to talk to him (or leave him a note if you can’t talk directly) with an expression of concern. [Handwrite the note if your penmanship is readable].

"Has there been something happening at your house that would have disturbed the dog last night?”

“I hope everyone is fine. When the dog woke me up, I thought about checking on you, but I looked out the window and didn’t see any lights on…etc.”

This takes them off the defensive (usually) because you are making it about their welfare while at the same time letting them know that the barking woke you up. Most people will say something apologetic back, like: “no, the dog was barking and I should have gotten up,” or “I’m sorry, I was so tired I must have slept right thru it”, etc.

If you want you can include something about the other nights, like:

"The previous two nights the dog was barking during this same time period, (you could ask him if his shift has changed, or if there was something happening in the alley [etc.] over the past 3 nights that might have alerted the dog), this way you are giving him a valid excuse for why the dog HAD been barking, and letting him know that you are aware of the issue.

You can offer your assistance, if he has the dog out for security reasons, you could help him with security tips that would help him secure his house a little better [use the sheet we distribute about making your house more burglar-proof]. But you also need to ask yourself, why the dog is just barking the past 3 nights. IS SOMETHING GOING ON IN THE ALLEY? Did he just get the dog?

Also, while you are awake, you might notice which direction the dog is barking in. Maybe there is criminal activity on the other side of their house that the dog can see but you can’t, the dog may be witnessing something you and your neighbor need to report. But other ideas include: You said you don’t see him when you are home, does he work a strange shift, and could the dog be barking when he comes home [in that case, you could mention something about calming dog anxiety after a master comes home, etc.] Is it a new dog? You could talk about how to quiet down new dogs, and share that with him (again in a helpful way). If you don’t know about any of this you could check out something on the web or do some research and find out what’s suggested by experts, if money is not an issue, you could buy a book on the subject, and offer to let him borrow it/have it, etc..

One of the things I do [and I know it's annoying that we should have to do this (but if a dog is going to keep me awake anyway…)] is that I get up and find out what the dog is barking at. That way the wasted sleep accomplishes something. The same would apply to other things that wake you up: people often say "a [noise] woke me up" (loud party, people on the street, booming car, etc.) or something like that, and they “couldn't get back to sleep”. If you can’t get back to sleep you might as well make the time productive. I always ask if they checked out the ‘thing’ that woke them up, if they called 911 or the non-emergency number, etc. It may be a small issue, like the car, etc. but if it woke you up, it might have woke others. If officers are doing nothing, and happen to be in the area, at least they have something to respond to, and who knows the people in the car could be wanted for something, etc. You may even describe a car they have been looking for, and end up getting a know thug off the streets, etc.

Either way, keep track of the time the dogs barked, I always try to have a pad and paper near my bed, that way I record the exact time, and any details. Then, as that last straw, I use the animal control ordinance and I have the required details:

· 15 minutes of continuous barking in a 1 hour time period
· 3 times in a 7 day period of time

This same principal can apply to most neighborhood situations, the important thing is if possible ‘connect’ with the neighbor, if they are a difficult person, at the very least you can connect on the basis of “wouldn’t you rather have me talk to you and you address this than for me to call the authorities.”

I’m glad you asked this question, I myself need to be reminded that a friendly conversation should always be my first response, today I met the new neighbors who moved in behind me, and as I’m introducing myself, and giving them the “feel free to contact me if there are issues” talk, I also couldn’t stop myself from reminding them that we have several ordinances that will deal with many, and we’d hate to involve the authorities. I felt bad afterwards, and am going to work on that.

A *John Campbell story…
At the training on Saturday (*John Campbell, who is SO KNOWLEDGEABLE about how to handle things of a neighborhood nature) we talked about ‘that problem house on the block’:

He explained there was a house that was trouble, the kids were terrible, the parents didn’t seem to know anything about parenting, and their activity was consistently negatively impacting the block. He decided he needed to do something…the only problem was that they had lived in the neighborhood for over a year and he hadn’t even introduced himself, yet.

And even though he was fuming inside and wanted to talk about all the bad behavior he had been witnessing, he went over, and just introduced himself and apologized for not introducing himself before (he had gotten in the habit, and his kids were so accustomed to it, that when new neighbors moved in they’d automatically bake brownies for him to take over to the new person’s house). The parents introduced themselves, and he left it at that. He went home and wrote down the names immediately (he’s bad with names) so he’d remember them.

The next day and in the days that followed when he’d see them outside he’d ALWAYS say hello and used their names, and greeted them kindly.

A few days later their kids were raising hell on the block, and the following day he saw the parents, and talked to them about children (I think he said he talked about his kids, but it doesn’t really matter, he kept the short conversation friendly and said nothing about the issues that were still VERY FRESH in his mind) during which he learned the names of their children. Over the next few weeks he made a point of talking to the kids and addressing them by name, as well as continuing to speak to the parents every chance he got, always friendly.

Then one night they kids were exceptionally bad, and he saw the parents the next day, he mentioned something about kids being kids and the parents said that if he ever had problems with them he could talk to the parents about it, and though he wanted to unload a whole years worth of issues he didn’t, instead he said okay, and left it at that.

But as the weeks/months went on he began to talk to the parents about the behaviors, a little at a time and always kindly.

A few years later every house on the block got burglarized except his.

I questioned that though this made it better for him, in effect, all he had done was made friends with felons, and though that saved his house, things didn’t get better for the neighbors. As an individual you did a good job of protecting you, but many of us think as Block Leaders and we need to also help the rest of the block, so on houses like this I usually try to find the biggest hammers I can and then use them on a house like this. John agreed. He said that there was much more to the story, that things did get better on the block for him and the rest of the neighbors, but that eventually it led to them suing the family; they lost the house over it, etc.

John talked more about problem-solving. Normally, if we have a problem, we think about police, because police ARE supposed to help solve problems, but police aren’t the ONLY problem-solvers, in fact, they shouldn’t be the first people we think about when there’s a problem (unless it’s a major crime).

Sometimes you and your neighbors are the best problems solvers:

Honking Horns:
John is great, he talked about how some people think that the thing in the center of you steering wheel is a door bell, they pull up in front of a house and honk the horn. So, if it keeps happening treat it accordingly. Normally (if we weren’t SO AWARE of knuckleheads and their behaviors), if someone were repeatedly honking like that, people would assume it’s an emergency, so treat it that way. Arrange with your neighbors to have as many of them as can (and can do it sincerely) come out to the car, and say “Are you okay? We thought something was terribly wrong because you were honking like that, are you okay?” It usually will stop them from doing it again, but if it doesn’t do it again. These types of methods work with most cases. But make sure that participants can pull it off, or it could turn into a worse situation.

Sometimes it’s someone you wouldn’t normally think about:
John is from Portland OR, and their equivalent of our Community Liaison Officer (Police, chronic-issue specialist) had called a landlord about a house that had been suspected of being a drug house. Before he was even done telling the landlord what had been witnessed the landlord cut him off and said that he resented the officer’s assumptions about his tenants, and that the officer was never to call him again. So, the officer thought, who else is a problem-solver in this situation, and he checked the tax rolls and learned that the house was mortgaged. So, he called the mortgage company and talked to a person there about the issue.

He told them the house’s location, and the name of the landlord, he said “isn’t there a clause in the mortgage contract that says that the house has to be used for ‘legal purposes’. And asked them if they “wanted to be known as the Mortgage Company that finances drug houses.” After he hung up, within 30 minutes he received a phone call from the landlord, “I’m sorry, officer, we must have had a bad connection during that last phone call…” and they worked together to get the tenants out. Turns out the landlord didn’t know about the crime-free housing program, and many other things he could do to insure that he didn’t end up with these types of tenants. They never had trouble with his house again.

There are other problem-solvers, just think of EVERYONE involved in a situation. “Break it down” was the term John uses, take a situation and break it down into it's many parts and look at each part to see who/what else is involved/could be involved.

One of the lady’s (older, grandmother-looking) from the East Side of Tacoma, who lives near an area that’s experienced prostitution goes out and talks to the prostitutes herself:

“I’m sorry, are you okay?” She’ll asks in all sincerity. “People say this is an area of prostitution, and I wanted to make sure you were okay.” “Can you imagine people having sex on this corner? Are you okay?” etc. It helps encourage them to move along.

Submitted September 16, 2008 by Edwina

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