Living together: how NGOs interact with local residents
Why local people are not always happy with charity initiatives and what can be done about it.
The main mission of charities and foundations is implicit in their name – they do good. Nowadays, everyone seems to be getting help: children, disabled and mentally ill people, dogs, cats and even the Amur tiger. However, what one person considers a good cause is not always shared by others. While cooperation between NGOs and their sponsors and those in their care can be taken as read, relationships with local residents are sometimes much more unpredictable.
The Agency for Social Information (ASI) has been finding out how non-profit organisations are establishing links with local residents, reaching compromises or resolving disputes where necessary. Each has its own methods: some prefer to initiate meetings with the locals, while others don’t interact much with them at all, with any contact restricted to a bare minimum.
Making rational arguments
Nochlezhka is Russia’s oldest homeless charity, having started life in St Petersburg in 1990. It is involved in a range of different projects, including providing shelters, a night bus, heating appliances, legal support and a cultural launderette.
This year it emerged that Nochlezhka was opening a branch office in Moscow and that one of its first projects would be to set up a charitable launderette in the capital’s Savelovsky district. It was also reported that the charity was opening its office with the Second Breath Foundation. A few days after news of the launderette became known, arguments flared up among a group of local residents with most fearing that a lot of homeless people would take up residence there. Threats were even made to burn down the launderette and insults thrown at the charity’s leadership.
Darya Baibakova, Director of Nochlezhka’s Moscow office, tried to allay local resident concerns, explaining how well received their work had been in St Petersburg but with little success.
The launderette has received support from a lot of people within the non-profit making community. Olga Romanova, Director of the Jailed Russia NGO, spoke of her many visits to Nochlezhka’s premises, which she has found to be among the cleanest in the city.
“People often see dangers where none exists or where they really exist. When you sit on a railway or park bench, you don’t know who’s been there previously and you’d rather not think about that anyway. Who had been holding the railing before you, and who had earlier been handling the money you were now using to pay for an ice-cream for your lovely child. You know what to do to keep safe and clean. You don’t want to live next door to a launderette for the homeless? Well, fine, they can just stay dirty. But this is common dirt, the kind we can’t hide from or wash off”, wrote Romanova.
The dispute was gathering momentum on social media so Nochlezhka and Second Breath decided to organise a local residents’ meeting to try and reach a compromise. This was held on Friday, 31 August and attended by Darya Baibakova and Darya Alekseeva, Director of Second Breath. Unfortunately, constructive dialogue was in short supply, with real threats again being made such as “Do you fear for your charges? Well, you should because we’re going to beat them up”.
Alekseeva later produced a video of the meeting and confirmed to the ASI that, unfortunately, the discussions had not gone well. “Of course it’s good that we met. It’s important for us to have spoken to local people about the launderette. And if as a result a few people have learned a little bit more and begun to think differently about things then that’s something”, she said.
Most local residents insist that Nochlezhka find another site for the launderette, with some even giving them the telephone number of their estate agent!
“Local people say they can help but so far no-one has come up with any specific proposals. They just say “move to the industrial area”. We are prepared to consider what we feel are viable options and discuss them with colleagues before making any decision on an alternative site”, said Baibakova.
In the next few days, Nochlezhka will be discussing an action plan to move things forward, as well as trying to meet again with local residents. “We’ll be compiling a list of questions which are most often asked of us and publish the answers, as well as collating official advice from lawyers on Sanitary Regulations and Standards to try and allay local resident fears”, Baibakova told the ASI.
Trying to come together and become friends
Living in a neighbourhood with homeless people isn’t always a problem for some local residents. Irina Yanushevskaya, Director and co-founder of Ladybirds, a social shelter for homeless disabled women based in Komsomolsk-on-Amur told the ASI that “local people initially viewed her shelter with a little apprehension”.
“There were no complaints from residents of the building where we rented the premises, despite the fact that public attitudes to this category of people are, to put it mildly, very wary. Anyone can end up homeless, something I know about from my own personal experience. A former life doesn’t make them better. So, projects like Nochlezhka are one way of returning these people to a normal way of life”, Yanushevskaya told the ASI.
The shelter now has an excellent relationship with the local community, she says. Yanushevskaya has even wanted to hold joint events so that the shelter’s residents can have an opportunity for socialising. She also came up with a project entitled “Reviving the tradition of sitting on a bench”, but was unsuccessful in obtaining a Presidential Grant for it.
“I’m a little surprised not to have received any support from the grant-givers. Everyone says “Yes, your project’s a good one” but money seems to go on helping stray dogs, the environment and for military patriotism. All this is great of course but it would be better if more support could be given to projects such as ours as they can resolve many serious problems linked to homelessness, such as reducing crime which is a source of great concern in people’s lives”, said Irina.
Quietly educating people
Some people are concerned not only about the homeless but also stray animals. The cat café Cats and People on Moscow’s Gilyarovsky Street is the first place of its kind to be established in the capital. It opened in 2015, has changed location several times and is now on the first floor of a residential building. There are 20 cats and cats of all kinds in a clean, bright room. If you see a cat in the café you like, you’ll be able to take it home with you. Its founder, Vladimir Kuzin, told the ASI that local resident reaction to this “cat community” had been mixed.
“Some residents come up to us and ask who gave us the authority for the cat café. They associate cats with dirt and disease and are worried about unpleasant odours. In response, we’ve showed them all the permits and assured people that our considerable experience in this business will ensure that the place is clean”, said Kuzin.
The second problem faced by the cat café is irresponsible people who think they’re doing a good deed. They’ll bring a homeless cat to the café either openly or they’ll put it in there surreptitiously. There was an instance recently of a girl leaving a kitten in the café’s toilet.
“Naturally, we are not mean to the cats but send them to a rescue centre at our own expense. However, we cannot accept cats from the public because our premises aren’t big enough and we don’t have much money. When we tell people why we’re unable to take in cats and that we can help but only if they pay for the vaccinations, neutering, chip and passport themselves, they start accusing us of making money on the back of cats, even though we only ask for reimbursement of our expenses”, said Kuzin.
According to Vladimir, some people accuse the café of not being a charity because “such an entity should cater for everyone and pay for everything itself”. Some visitors accuse the cat café owners of exploiting cats. “People see cats asleep and think we’re giving them sedatives to make money out of them. But what a lot of people don’t realise is that cats sleep for around 18 hours a day which is absolutely normal. We try to reassure our guests and talk to them about cats’ everyday habits and emphasise that in our café they enjoy all the rights only animals could have”, he said.
Debunking myths and prejudices
The NGO Kotospas is involved in rescuing cats that have been bricked up behind cellar walls. You’d think that everyone would like cats. Unfortunately, animal rights activists have suffered more than once in their attempts to rescue trapped cats doomed to a slow death.
Kotospas staff deal with calls on their hotline nearly every day from concerned local residents with reports of cats which have been bricked up behind a wall. Having taken the call, Kotospas contacts the caretaker who tries to resolve the issue with the management company. Sometimes the police are called in. If none of this works, a specialist is brought in to open an air hole.
“All our cats have a guardian, i.e. someone who looks after and feeds them. Most often it is elderly women who tell us about such cases”, said Anna Feldman, head of the first response unit for homeless cats at Kotospas.
It seems that attitudes of residents living close to an entrance don’t always coincide. Some feed the cats; others want them thrown out onto the street. “There are some residents who think that cats are basically unsanitary. People have certain myths and prejudices locked in their heads. These are stereotypical attitudes which are all too common in today’s society, so it’s inevitable that we have encountered hostility, some of it physical. It has been known for local residents to attack the guardians and us”, said Feldman.
One of the reasons for such ignorance is the lack of mass social advertising which would explain that the presence of a cat in a basement is not a dangerous thing. Kotospas has circulated a note to residents of this cat megalopolis which is sometimes handed out during animal rights demonstrations. The note can be printed and displayed by the front door entrance.
Ventilation of the basement is required to create air holes according to rules that govern the housing charity’s technical oversight of the building. Without open air holes, the building would not be able to function. Moreover, on 16 April it emerged that the Federation’s Ministry of Construction, Housing and Communal Services had decided to impose a rule to keep an air capacity of 15cm by 15cm in the foundations of multi-apartment buildings so that cats are able to come and go in basement areas. According to Anna Feldman, “Metal bars and other horribly welded constructions which sometimes close off air holes are illegal”.
How is it that someone can hate cats so much that they are prepared to leave them to die in basements? According to Anna, it is men and women of early retirement age who have a strong dislike of cats.
“They are most likely poorly educated individuals who have a lot of stereotypical attitudes. We try and explain that metal bars are illegal, that animals shouldn’t die inside buildings and that we must release them but people still object. They refuse on principle to listen to our arguments, so trying to explain something to them is a complete waste of time”, Feldman told the ASI.
Don’t fall out with local residents
The rehabilitation centre Russian House can be found on the outskirts of Moscow. It has been helping the mentally disabled for nearly 20 years. According to Tatyana who works for the centre, the organisation has had to deal with complaints from residents of nearby houses. She feels that her three years’ experience working for another NGO has helped her build an equitable relationship with neighbours.
Early on, she decided to organise her work in such a way that the Russian House and its charges would not have any contact with local residents. “I believe the best way to develop a mutually agreeable relationship involves respecting the opinions of both sides. Firstly, we should appreciate the views of residents even though we may not like or agree with them. They live there and we only use the place. So the onus is really on NGOs”, she said.
Tatyana is convinced that NGOs need to make prior, considered assessments of the risks and potential pitfalls of local engagement and, if possible, choose a more suitable site for their organisation.
“I know how those in our care can sometimes behave and how they can push the boundaries of local residents. Our staff are continually trying to anticipate, monitor and prevent any potential problems”, she told the ASI.
According to Tatyana, we can talk as much as we like about the need to change public attitudes about those in the care of NGOs. However, some of our charges can be responsible for antisocial acts, behaviour which should not be indulged by NGOs.
“I’m always telling our guys that only they can change society’s negative prejudices. We can only help by educating the public. However, people will only start trusting those in our care if they see the good side of their character. In other words, they have to learn how to conduct themselves in public in a way that enables them to be gradually accepted by society”, she said.
It’s good when the local community supports an organisation’s work but, in Tatyana’s view, sometimes the best solution is to maintain a sustainable, even-handed and mutually calm relationship.
“With mutual respect over time it will be possible to build something more. But, to dismiss the opinions of others would be a negative and irresponsible attitude for NGOs to take”, she said.