The District is under increasing pressure to adopt broad zoning changes that would allow group homes to be established anywhere in the city for persons with emotional, physical and behavioral problems.
Many of the group homes are now in the central city -- wards 1 and 2 -- along redevelopment areas. The number of homes, private and public, has been estimated to be as high as 400.
The pressure for zoning changes stems from several factors, including two recent court orders requiring that persons in institutions be returned to the community, the closing of two juvenile institutions within the past six years and widespread complaints from residents who contend that most of the group homes are clustered in their neighborhoods.
On Feb. 15, District residents are expected to outline their views on the proposed changes at a hearing before the D.C. Zoning Commission. City and federal officials testified before the commission last November.
Roy Ross, program analyst for the zoning coordination unit of the Office of Planning and Development (formerly the Municipal Planning Office), said he was "pretty sure some sort of amendments will be adopted," because "the areas are overcrowded where (group homes) already are. The court cases caused us to have to move a lot of (formerly institutionalized) wards back into the District of Columbia." Ross is the OPD staff member responsible for writing the proposed zoning changes.
For more than a decade, the Department of Human Resources has been establishing group homes for the mentally retarded, juveniles, drug offenders and other persons under city care. Ross said OPD has an agreement with DHR that the agency will not establish more group homes in the neighborhoods that have the largest concentration of homes.
At a public meeting last month, DHR Director Albert P. Russo said court orders leave the city with little choice but to approve the zoning changes.
The two major court orders affecting the issue of group homes are classaction suits relating to the care of mentally retarded and mentally ill people in institutions.
On June 14, 1978, U.S. District Court Judge John H. Pratt ordered DHR to devise a plan to close Forest Haven, the city-run institution for the mentally retarded. More than 900 people are to be moved to community homes, with 200 people to be moved by the end of September 1980. DHR presently runs five group homes for the mentally retarded and contracts for services with four other homes.
On Oct. 3, 1978, U.S. District Court Judge Aubrey E. Robinson ordered DHR and the Department of Health, Education and Welfare to formulate a plan to move selected mental patients at the federally run St. Elizabeth's Hospital. The facility has about 2,000 inpatients.
St. Elizabeth's runs no group homes of its own, but has a referral list of 226 foster homes where patients can be placed. The homes are approved and monitored by the hospital's social services office.
In addition to the court orders, the closing of several institutions prompted a greater demand for group homes.
In the early 1970s, the city closed Junior Village, the only public institution here for neglected children. After the closing, DHR began placing the children in foster homes and group homes. On Dec. 21, 1976, the city consented to a court decree prohibiting the creation of another Junior Village.
The DHR Bureau of Family Services must now find foster homes and group homes for about 45 youths a month, said Jean Schreiber, chief of the bureau's residential care unit.
"Our agency is in need of 25 new homes which would house five to eight (neglected) children," who are physically and/or emotionally disabled, said Schreiber. "Most of our group homes are up in the Adams-Morgan area. This (zoning change) would permit us to move out and be in different areas."
At least two agencies, although they support the zoning changes, say they have been able to meet their present needs for group homes.
In 1977, Maple Glen, an institution for youth needing supervision, was phased out in an effort to meet federal funding guidelines for a juvenile prevention program. The Bureau of Youth Services established several group homes to relocate youths at Maple Glen.
Since the late 1960s, DHR has established 14 group homes for youths. It also has contracts with three private group homes, said BYS director Thaddeus Taylor.
Presently, 170 youths live in the homes. Taylor said BYS does not foresee an immediate need for more group homes, unless the number of youths under its care increases or DHR decides to decrease further the number of youths who can be in a group home.
Harold Walsh, director of the D.C. Department of Corrections' group home program, said the department also has no need for more group homes. The agency has 225 ex-offenders in eight group homes, he said. Three are run by the corrections department and five are private group homes under contract to the department.
Under present halfway house zoning regulations, adopted in 1975, such homes are limited to areas zoned for rowhouses and apartments, city zoning officials said. Before the 1975 changes halfway houses were established in rooming houses. District residents immediately protested the practice.
The proposed amendments would bring to a head a battle that has been waged for nearly a decade between residents who have succeeded in excluding, or limiting, group homes and social service centers in their areas, and residents who have complained that zoning laws allowing homes to be clustered in their neighborhoods were discriminatory.
Further complicating the issue are the absence of licensing standards for group homes servicing youth, drug offenders and alcoholics, Ross said.
"If you don't have a licensing procedure, how can you control where they are, who they are and how many there are?" he asked, adding that OPD is unsure how many private group homes are actually operating in the District.
However, on July 15, 1976, in a letter signed by a dozen Adams-Morgan residents, the old MPO was asked to address the question of group home development.
Major concerns outlined in the letter included what the residents saw as the clustering of group homes and social service centers in Adams-Morgan, inadequate supervision of group home residents and group homes that appeared to be too large to offer quality services.
The letter included several suggestions that might eliminate the problems:
Halfway houses and social service centers should be allowed in all residential areas.
The Board of Zoning Adjustment should approve all proposed halfway houses or social service centers.
Space regulations (such as an old zoning requirement that certain homes be no closer to each other than 600 feet) should be established for halfway houses and social service centers.
Licensing regulations should be established for all group homes.
All together, seven suggestions were presented. The residents also asked to be notified when action was taken on their requests. The MPO response was to hold community forums on the issue and develop the proposed zoning amendments.
Ross said he wrote the proposed amendments after studying zoning laws for group homes in states that had problems similar to the District's. Wisconsin was used as a primary example.
Suggestions from the District residents also were used, he said, "because the community asked for them." The amendments, which were written in 1978, were approved by former city planning director Ben Gilbert.
In the past four months, Walter Lewis, chairperson of the D.C. Zoning Commission, and OPD Administrator James Gibson have asked Ross to obtain additional information on the proposed amendments.