Eight months after the city's worst fire killed 10 mental outpatients from St. Elizabeths Hospital in a group home on Lamont Street, 200 people -- mostly elderly outpatients or mental outpatients -- still live in 44 foster care homes with serious fire safety violations.
The violations range from the absence of a second exit to be used if fire breaks out, to bedrooms constructed with wooden doors and frames, to the presence of open wooden staircases that instantly can become shafts of fire rising through the building.
D.C. Mayor Marion Barry created a special task force of city inspectors to examine all of the approximately 400 Group homes in the city two days after a raging night-time fire killed the 10 women in a home at 1715 Lamont St. NW on April 11.
At that time, he ordered that the foster care facilities be brought up to "minimum standards" or closed.
Since Barry issued the order, a total of 314 group homes have passed fire and health inspections and 20 have closed. But 44 homes where violations still exist have been allowed to remain open while they take corrective actions to comply with the city's fire safety standards.
Mayor Barry said yesterday that he was "satisfied with the work we've done.
"As I understand it, these remaining facilities have minimum deficiencies which do not present an imminent danger to the residents," he said through a spokesman.
"We hope and pray nothing happens," said fire department Lt. Lester J. Fletcher, the task force's deputy director.
"We have an obligation to work with these people (the operators of the homes)," said Theodore J. Gordon, the task force's director.
"We can't throw the total onus on the facility operators. We can't rush out there and throw out all those people. Where will you put the people?"
The 44 homes that still have safety violations have been required to install fire extinguishers, smoke detectors and fire alarm systems to minimize the potential loss of life from fire.
During the inspections, 20 foster care homes have been closed either because the operators failed to correct deficiencies or because they decided the required repairs would be too costly and chose to go out of business.
The homes, many of which are located in large old Victorian homes in Northwest, essentially are dormitories for mental patients, the elderly and recovering alcoholics who can live alone if someone else regularly prepares their meals and helps them with their medicine.
Operators of the group homes do not receive salaries. Residents pay for their room and board by either turning over to the operators their full Social Security checks or paying in cash or check.
When a resident hands over the entire check, the operators deduct their payment and return whatever is left -- usually about $30 -- to the resident for spending money.
More than 150 of the homes are under contract to St. Elizabeths to house patients from the hospital. St. Elizabeths was ordered by a federal judge in 1975 to transfer patients who can live in the community.
An estimated 500 former patients now live in foster care homes, technically called community residence facilities.
St. Elizabeths officials said about 100 patients were forced to move when their group homes were closed or because of orders by inspectors that the patients be moved out of third-story rooms.
Gordon, the task force director, said no single deadline exists by which time the homes' operators must fully comply with fire standards.
He said the operators of the homes have been allowed extra time to comply if they install or adopt preliminary safety measures. Besides the installation of smoke detectors and fire extinguishers, those include the transfer of residents from third-story rooms, and the placement of bids or downpayments for sprinkler systems or fire escapes.
Fletcher, the task force's deputy director who is on loan from the city's fire department, said, "We must have some compassion [for the operators] and take some risks."
The Washington Home for the Blind, a house operated by Eula Kyle at 5516 14th St. NW for 10 blind or deaf residents, is typical of those with outstanding violations.
Fire inspectors found there was no second exit for residents on the third floor. They also listed as dangerous violations an open stairway, wooden doors leading to bedrooms on the second and third floors, the absence of fire extinguishers in the kitchen and a front door that opens inward and that therefore would prohibit rapid escape during a fire.
Kyle said she has not replaced the doors, closed in the stairway or created a second exit because she plans to install a sprinkler system. Under the city's inspection laws, a sprinkler system would eliminate the need to take the other actions.
Kyle said he has made a $3,000 downpayment for the sprinkler system. Since the inspection, she said, she has installed smoke detectors and covered the basement ceiling to prevent a fire in the basement from spreading to the first floor.
"It's been tough and costly" to meet the city requirements, said Sarah Bauer, who operates homes at 1746-48 Lanier Pl. NW., where 21 residents live.
Bauer said she and two sisters who are co-operators of the homes have spend almost $700 to put a sheet of metal on the inside of each bedroom door and have made a downpayment on a $9,000 sprinkler system for both homes. They previously had installed smoke detectors and fire extinguishers.
When city officials closed Talley House at 1242-46 10th St. NW., in October because the operator, Eunice Talley, had failed to correct any of a series of fire violations, they found many of the 16 residents suffering from lice infestations.
One person later was admitted to D.C. General Hospital with active tuberculosis, according to city officials.
A week before the Oct. 26 closing, a 65-year-old man was found dead at one of the Talley Houses. The office of the city medical examiner ruled later that the man had died of tuberculosis.
Five men living in the homes accepted city offers to find them other places to live the day the homes closed. But when city officials asked othe private operators of group homes to accept them, they refused.
The operators who refused to accept the residents knew about the death of the man at Talley House, said Corrie Kemp, chief of the DHR's central referral bureau, which helps displaced residents.
Since the homes cared for large numbers of people, "They didn't want to take the risk" of possibly exposing their residents to tuberculosis, Kemp said.
Four of the men finally were placed in a city-run shelter for homeless men. A fifth man, who had lost both legs, was taken to a city-owned facility for the handicapped. All returned to Mrs. Talley's home the next day, however, because the city-run shelters close during the day.
Gordon said that, when he learned on Oct. 30 of the TB death and that all five men were back with Mrs. Talley, he went to her private residence at 1250 10th St. NW., and found "people sleeping on the floor in her living room."
Eleven of the 20 people at the home, including the original five men were taken to D.C. General Hospital and treated for lice and taken to other homes. Mrs. Talley closed her home to transients.
Talley could not be reached for comment yesterday. She has said that she has cared "for six people" for three years and that she "couldn't get the money to remodel."
Gordon said that one reason his office has given "everybody the maximum time to bring their facility into compliance" is that the city's Department of Human Resources never enforced a two-year-old law requiring each home to have an operating license. Only 15 of the 314 group homes have been granted license by DHR, thereby delaying the transfer of about 100 St. Elizabeths patients into the homes.
Operators could not be expected to comply just because "all of a sudden the task force was created," Gordon said.
DHR officials said they lacked the necessary staff to enforce the law until the Lamont Street fire and Barry's order creating the task force of inspectors.
Part of the reason for the delay was the fact that DHR Director Albert Russo did not define until last week the minimum amount of liability insurance that each home would be required to carry.
Such insurance coverage is a prerequisite for licensing under the 1977 law. Under guidelines to take effect next month, homes with one or two residents must carry at least $100,000 worth of liability coverage; homes with three to nine residents must carry $300,000 in coverage, and those with 10 or more must have at least $500,000 worth.
To accelerate the licensing once the insurance regulations take effect, Russo temporarily has waived a requirement that each patient have a current certificate from a doctor approving the resident's placement in a home.
Officials occasionally have found that some people in the homes were sick and should have been in nursing homes.
Gordon's task force, which centralized 31 inspectors from six different offices to correct a system the mayor called "archaic, splintered and illogical," will go out of business on Jan. 31.
City administrator Elijah Rogers said through a spokesman that the city would not return to the old fragmented system. But officials are undecided now about how they will coordinate annual inspectors of the homes in the future, Rogers said.