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The Long Road to Independence

Another time, on the Metro, Roger took a sharp breath when he saw an Asian man. Roger, who is part Chinese, looked at Linda, then back at the man.

"Does he look like your father?" she asked.

Roger Butt celebrates Christmas Eve with Linda Tarlow, her husband, Alvin Rosenbaum, and his son, Sam, in Roger's new apartment. The marble game on the table was one of Roger's presents. (Photos Katherine Frey -- The Washington Post)

Excited, he nodded yes.

About a year into their friendship, Linda figured out something else Roger was trying to tell her.

He wanted to move.

The trips with Linda made Roger more aware of his dismal surroundings. For more than a decade after leaving Forest Haven, he shared a bedroom in the group home on Elvans Road SE, a crime-ravaged, trash-strewn street near Suitland Parkway. He knew the home had been burglarized, that one of its employees had been mugged and that people in the area were getting killed.

Roger wanted to live in a "nice, safe" neighborhood, Linda said.

The city and plaintiffs in the Forest Haven suit worked out an agreement in late 2002 to move Roger into an apartment, with one or two roommates. But finding an affordable, accessible place took time, and Linda felt that the city was not moving fast enough.

There were terse letters, angry phone calls, emotional meetings.

As the search continued, Linda tried to brighten Roger's life at the home. She bought him cologne, a television stand, clothes, a police scanner and a digital camera so he could have photos of his outings. The cologne, camera and some clothes were stolen.

There were setbacks with the city's Mental Retardation and Developmental Disabilities Administration, which serves more than 1,900 people with special needs. Several apartments were considered, then rejected, including one in Woodley Park that Roger loved. When it fell through, Linda and Roger cried.

"I know Roger experienced some disappointment," said Dale Brown, the agency's director. "But finding affordable, accessible housing is a challenge, and we have to be fiscally responsible."

Everything came together last summer when two key people joined the search: Jimi Lethbridge of Quality Trust, an advocacy group, and Sheila Tracy of Reclaiming Community Membership of Washington, a contractor that provides assisted residential care.

Lethbridge, criticizing group homes as "mini-Forest Havens," said it was easier to serve Roger's needs "when you're not trying to do it for eight people at a time."

He and Tracy got caught up in Roger's cause.

"It got personal . . . and I do this for a living," Lethbridge said.

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