Blue Light Safety Project offers shelter but raises questions
Imagine walking down a dark street flickering with shadows. Or worse, imagine that you are being pursued by someone unsafe on that same dark street. Now picture a halo of blue light glowing from a nearby porch. Imagine that this blue light signifies a safe place to stop, make a phone call—or perhaps even share a meal or stay for the night.
If it sounds comforting to know that there are safe houses where you can seek refuge in your neighborhood, that’s exactly what organizers of the Blue Light Safety Project intend. The idea is simple: anyone can install a blue bulb in their porch light bulb socket and this will let neighbors, community members or passersby know that they are welcome to knock on the door if they feel threatened or unsafe.
Conceived by a local organization, the Police Obsolescence Working Group, the project came out of community safety meetings held to brainstorm ideas in making Santa Cruz a safer place outside of institutional forms of policing.
“Many community groups are focused on police and crime,” says Wes Modes, a collective member of the project. “This is a different project because we’re giving community (members) tools they can use themselves to keep the community safer.”
Besides blue light bulbs, which can be acquired at the hardware store or through the project’s website (bluelightsafety.blogspot.com), project organizers recommend that blue light hosts place a sign in their front yard to let potential visitors know the type of “service” they offer. Whereas some blue light hosts may be comfortable with offering a bed and a hot meal, others may be comfortable with merely offering their porch as a resting place. Hosts may also map their homes on the project website so people in need can more easily find them.
“Our vision is that every neighborhood will have several blue light houses so you’ll always have a safe place to go,” says Modes, who imagines potential guests ranging from women or youth walking alone at night to homosexual or trans-gender people who’ve been threatened, as well as victims of domestic violence fleeing abusive situations.
“Sometimes people don’t feel safe calling the cops because they don’t agree with the repercussions that will happen,” explains Kristen Swig, one of Santa Cruz’s inaugural blue light house hosts. “If you simply need a safe space, I think it’s really positive that my house can provide that temporary place.”
Though the Blue Light Safety Project is well-intended, spokespeople from some local social service organizations have concerns about how safe the project actually is. Because the project is intentionally a decentralized, do-it-yourself venture operating outside of any formalized institution, there is no vetting procedure of hosts, no background checks and no special training program.
“I love the idea of people helping people and creating a safe place in our community, but if there’s no screening process and no background check, it leaves people vulnerable,” says Cristie Clemens, director of the domestic violence program at Walnut Avenue Women’s Center.
“I wouldn’t send a survivor to a blue light house without knowing the people providing the service,” she adds, explaining that survivors of domestic violence are already vulnerable and tend to be re-victimized so she wouldn’t want to put them at risk.
Bill McCabe, director of Youth Services at the Santa Cruz Community Counseling Center, agrees. “The whole idea of engaging the community to take care of the community is what we want to cultivate,” he says. “But if you’re running programs for vulnerable people and you are not doing background checks on (hosts), then you haven’t done all the steps necessary to make a safe place. There is a tendency for the predator and the vulnerable to find each other. That’s just the way our psyches work. Because of that tendency, you really want to mitigate.”
In addition, McCabe explains that the vulnerability of youths and adolescents is another issue that needs to be considered carefully in this project.
“Youth are particularly vulnerable and teenaged youth are likely to be out there without their guardian’s knowledge of where they are,” he says. “If you take a teen into your home and aren’t going to contact the guardian directly, you’re going to get yourself into problems. If you’re taking in youth, you’re taking in someone’s child.”
In response to the question of how the project will deal with underage visitors, Modes assures that blue light hosts would encourage youths to call their parents or guardians. He adds, “With certain people we probably have more responsibility to get them to a safe place.”
Because a blue light house is intended to be merely a temporary safe space—not a long-term shelter—the objective of this project is to provide immediate safety and then direct people to a place where they can find a more permanent solution.
Still, Modes recognizes that there is no guarantee that just because a blue light is shining on the porch the house will be safe. But because blue light locations aren’t anonymous, he maintains that if anyone uses a blue light inappropriately the community would soon become aware and the offender would quickly be made accountable.
The question seems obvious: Rather than dealing with a potentially dangerous situation after the fact, why not prevent it by having some sort of screening process for blue light hosts? In response, Modes says that this type of procedural organization would counter the overall philosophy of the project.
“We want people to run with this and go where they want to take it,” he says, explaining that instilling a vetting procedure “diminishes the possibilities in a project like this where people are taking control of their own lives.”
Modes adds, “We want this to change how people feel about safety and community. We rely on institutions to make choices for us. It’s a revolutionary idea that people can take responsibility for safety in their communities.”
McCabe suggests that some of this empowerment could come from a training program that would help blue light hosts feel better prepared to deal with the situations they’re likely to face.
“You’re strengthening their good will by giving them support and training,” he says. “I don’t know if people are (otherwise) fully equipped to handle all the situations that will show up at their doorstep.” He gives the example of a drug addict coming down from a methamphetamine high at two in the morning. Or the abused girlfriend with her abusive boyfriend 10 minutes behind her.
Clemens agrees that an adequately trained host can better meet the needs of his or her guests. She advises that prospective hosts ask themselves, “Are you really capable of managing someone with serious mental health issues that may come knocking on your door?”
She does applaud the project organizers for addressing the issue of setting boundaries for guests—however, her work with people in crisis has proven that setting boundaries and keeping them are two different things.
“When you’re working for someone in need, it can be difficult to hold those boundaries,” she says. “What might seem like a simple situation can turn into a longer case management plan.”
“It’s a good idea, but there are a lot of complications to think about,” says McCabe, outlining what he sees as next steps to making this project something that the wider community will embrace. “They need to do background checks on the hosts, make sure they are trained and get really clear on exactly what they are offering people.”
For more information, visit bluelightsafety.blogspot.com