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Emotions, distortions block home for homeless youth

It took several months, but a small group of Buffalo's citizens prevailed in creating overwhelming opposition to a planned group home for homeless youth in the North District.

Democracy in action? America at its best? Perhaps. Some observers have compared what happened in the North District to our local version of a Tea Party rally where information was distorted, insulting accusations were rampant and the mob was ruled by anger and fear.

No doubt you are familiar with the abundant experimental evidence in social psychology regarding perception and conformity. What people report as their own belief can be manipulated by what they are told to expect. "Stooges" can get subjects in experimental situations to agree that they see unequal lines as equal, or that a fixed candlelight in a dark room is moving.

These erroneous perceptions persist even after those who have been misleading the subjects have left the room! The pressure exerted by the opinions of other people, especially in group situations, can lead to personal modification and distortions, effectively making you see and believe almost anything.

So, back to the North District. Having attended two public meetings about the planned group home, I was struck by the high level of emotionality that existed in the face of a seemingly rational question: Should a variance be granted to United Church Home Society to open a group home for homeless youth?

It was clear from listening to the majority of speakers that they were frightened because they were told to expect that the residents of the group home would be dangerous individuals, and were also told to expect that United Church Home Society was not to be trusted in administering this project. For its part, United Church Home Society seemed unprepared to provide important details in the first meeting, but was able to produce a thorough, well-documented presentation at the second, a Zoning Board meeting.
Despite significant, new objective data prepared to inform residents as to the profile of the young people to be served and the planning that had gone into this project, the very same fearful, angry beliefs were put forth by the opponents of the project.

I believe there are legitimate reasons that argue against locating another group home in the North District. Information provided by Terrence Connors at the Zoning Board meeting graphically depicts that the density of such projects is much higher than, for example, in the Delaware District. However, it was distasteful to witness community leaders actively malign the proposed clients of this project, and manipulate the emotions of citizens with fear mongering and disinformation.

On March 24, the Zoning Board will meet, and the variance will likely be denied. The supporters of the opposition who used base tactics in their pursuit of this outcome have a very hollow victory to celebrate.

Nancy A. Karp of Buffalo is a licensed psychologist.

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