D.C. residents question concentration of group homes

By Henri E. Cauvin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 14, 2010; B01

No place in the District has more group homes than Ward 4, and residents are asking why.

Covering a swath of Northwest and Northeast Washington from Petworth up to the northern tip of the city, Ward 4 contains nearly a quarter of the 338 group homes regulated by the city's social service agencies. Of the 113 group homes serving people with developmental disabilities, 47 of them, or more than 40 percent, are in Ward 4.

Community leaders say such homes, typically run by private providers under contract with the city, have become too concentrated, particularly in and around Takoma.

The community has "always had a tradition of tolerance," said Jackie Jones, president of the Takoma D.C. Neighborhood Association. "We believe in a diverse neighborhood in the broadest sense of the term, but there's a limit to what any neighborhood can take."

Since the closure of Forest Haven, the city's institution for people with developmental disabilities, almost two decades ago, the District has struggled to integrate people with developmental disabilities into the community. A class-action suit filed in 1976 over care at Forest Haven has yet to be settled.

The long-simmering concerns in Ward 4 reflect the challenges that confront the District decades after deinstitutionalization began to transform the way the city cares not only for the developmentally disabled but also for the mentally ill and for children who are abused, neglected or delinquent. From the shrinking of St. Elizabeths, the city's public psychiatric hospital, to the shuttering of Oak Hill, the city's former juvenile detention center, the District has been moving to community-based services for all but the most acute, vulnerable or dangerous people in its care.

Although the number of group homes is greatest in Ward 4, wards 5, 7 and 8 each have more than 60 group homes. Ward 3, the city's wealthiest area, has two.

In Ward 5, which like Ward 4 has many single-family residences, most of the group homes serve people with developmental disabilities or mental illness. Ward 7 has more juvenile justice homes than any other part of the city, which may reflect the fact that 55 percent of young people under the supervision of the Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services are from Ward 7 and neighboring Ward 8.

And the group homes in Ward 8 include a third of the 77 in the District that house foster children who have not been placed in family homes. Almost 40 percent of the District's 2,100 foster children are from Ward 8, according to the Child and Family Services Agency.

Collectively, the group homes overseen by the District house 2,000 to 3,000 people.

Respecting the neighbors

At a community meeting this month in Takoma, almost all of the residents who addressed the city's attorney general and the heads of the mental health, juvenile justice, child welfare and developmental disabilities agencies voiced support for the notion that the disabled and vulnerable should be able to live in District neighborhoods.

But speaker after speaker said the city has failed to respect the rights of other residents, providing little if any notice about homes opening in their communities, offering no easy way to complain when problems arise and permitting homes to cluster in particular neighborhoods.

The city is limited by law in what it can tell the public about most prospective group homes or the people living in them, Attorney General Peter Nickles told the audience. But the city can do more, he said, to avoid concentrating homes and to ensure that neighbors have a way to raise concerns about how a home is being operated.

Cheryl Winchester, whose family has lived on Third Street NW in Petworth for 60 years, is eager to see how the city carries out those promises. A nutrition and health instructor whose office is in her three-story rowhouse, Winchester said a group home moved in next door a few months ago. The house is a short-term shelter for girls who have been arrested and are awaiting court appearances. They can be loud, and police have been called to the house a couple of times, Winchester said. But she has made her peace with the girls and the staff.

Then she learned that the house on the other side of her was on its way to becoming a group home, too, and she was beside herself.

"How many group homes are going to move into our neighborhood?" she asked officials at the community meeting.

In an interview a few days later in her living room, Winchester said she saw the value of keeping the girls in the community but said the city needs to ensure it does not impose an undue burden on blocks like hers. "Putting two group homes within three doors of each other, I don't think that's the answer," she said.

An unwanted wake-up call

When Rachel Barham and James Rogers bought their split-level on Eighth Street NW in Takoma a couple of years ago, they were fine with the presence of a group home next door, Barham said. What they didn't know was that they would have to routinely endure profane early-morning rants by one of the home's residents.

"Where is the balance between our normal domestic peace?" Barham asked.

Laura Nuss, the new head of the Department on Disability Services, told Barham that such regular disturbances by a resident are unacceptable and that the issue would be taken up with the provider.

In an interview last week, Barham said that the home is well run and that the boisterous resident is clearly a challenge for the staff, too. But she said the rants, which usually play out right outside the couple's windows, take their toll on her and her husband, who are classical musicians and often return home late after evening performances.

When they have guests, they have to explain that the commotion is nothing to be alarmed about. But some older visitors, such as Barham's mother, can be unsettled by outbursts. "She's not used to hearing the f-bomb," Barham said.

Going smaller

With many quiet residential neighborhoods and an ample stock of relatively affordable, large single-family homes, Ward 4 has become a destination over the years for many providers establishing homes for the developmentally disabled. Nuss, the head of DDS, said her agency is encouraging providers to set up elsewhere and is moving toward smaller homes with just one to three residents that should be less disruptive to neighborhoods.

But news of the shift to smaller "supported" homes hardly allayed the concerns of residents, who appeared surprised to learn from Nuss that DDS does not classify such residences as group homes and that there are many such homes in the ward. According to DDS data released last week, there are 105 supported homes in Ward 4 and 121 in Ward 5. Together, the two wards account for almost three-quarters of the supported homes overseen by DDS.

Ward 4 D.C. Council member Muriel Bowser (D) said a complete picture of the homes in the community and better coordination among the social service agencies are essential.

"The whole point of bringing folks out of institutions was to allow them to experience a neighborhood," Bowser said. "But if you concentrate on blocks or certain neighborhoods, then you kind of institutionalize the block, and that's not the goal for people with disabilities, and it's not the goal for our neighborhoods, either."

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