Three years ago when a 13 room house was opened in Kilmoganny, Ireland, for some of the area's adult mentally retarded, Jean Vanier spoke. A Canadian whose life's work is the humane care of the mentally handicapped, he congratulated the Irish country people. In 40 other places in which he had helped open group homes--in England, France, Canada, the U.S.--neighborhood opposition boiled over to keep them out, but here the retarded were welcomed.
True to form, the opening of a northwest Washington group home for some adult retarded women has turned into a civic brawl of charges and couter-charges. Nothing is gained by picturing the opponents of the group home as elitists who champion compassion for the weak as long as they keep out of the neighborhood.
One of the residents, Lewis Regenstein, said his questioning is not about the presence of the retarded but the house the city has chosen for them. It "has no front or back yard to speak of. There's no recreatation room. (It has) a tiny kitchen." He asks, "Why doesn't the city pick a decent house?"
The real estate argument is valid. For its $1,500-a-month rent, the city is paying more for a fancy address than for a spacious residence it might have found for much less money. The previous renter reports paying $785 a month for the house. If the rent is suddenly doubled, the retarded should at least get a swimming pool, rec room, deck, barbecue patio and maybe solar roof.
Instead of keeping the discussion on real estate, which, next to the new Reagan tax breaks is Topic A on any given day or night in Cleveland Park, many of the opponents blew their case by pushing further. They said they weren't consulted, as though they expect to be consulted by any non-retarded person who moves in. They said eight residents are too many, as though they would gripe if a senator with spouse and six chldren had turned up. They want assurances juvenille offenders or drug abusers won't use the home.
Perhaps before making the latter outlandish request, the neighbors should come forth with evidence of their own purity--that no family there has any child in trouble with the law, and that no one abuses drugs, alcohol presumably included.
By raising arguments like these, the opponents do little more than present themselves as easy targets for charges of elitism and lacking in charity.
A lesser blunder was made by city officials who didn't understand the potential volitality. Some stroking would have done much--perhaps a call from the mayor to a neighborhood titan or two, a visit by an offical of the Department of Human Resources. But with an effort to create a meaningful dialogue, though the the law required none, a signal was sent out that this was another bureaucratic power play. In fact, city officials, to their credit, have been sensitive and politically sophisticated in the past in opening group homes in other locations.
The fight has produced two losers, the residents and the city government. One is suspected of bigotry, the other of bureaucracy. Each group is powerful enough to absorb its losses, however unjust the suspicions might be. The group that can't take a loss is the retarded. The retarded women moving into the house need warmth and peace. These are the two qualities, the village priest in Kilmoganny, Ireland, told me, the adult retarded share most generously with us. 1981 The Washington Post Co.