The District of Columbia government agreed yesterday to delay for two weeks the opening of a group home for mentally retarded women in an affluent Northwest Washington neighborhood in an effort to allay the apprehensions and resistance of nearby residents.
However, city officials emphatically said that they will not capitulate to the residents' other demands to limit the number of occupants in the home, located at 3223 Cathedral Ave. NW, provide for neighborhood participation in its operation, review the files of the women and select the residents.
Jan Eichhorn, chief of the Department of Human Services (DHS) bureau charged with moving residents out of the city's Forest Haven institution in Laurel, said a meeting with concerned neighbors on Wednesday night "surfaced a number of people who were genuinely ignorant. If delaying for a short period of time will help us move into a more welcome setting, we will do that."
But Eichhorn said that "morally, ethically and legally we cannot allow them authority over people for whom we have professional responsibility." She said DHS and the Joseph P. Kennedy Jr. Institute, which the city has hired to manage the house, would welcome the help of a community advisory board.
"We're delighted about the delay in the opening of the home ," said Stephen C. Caulfield, a pioneer in the use of community-based rehabilitation homes in New York City in the 1960s and a spokesman for the neighborhood's residents. "We're immensely concerned about the numbers of occupants and we are cautiously hopeful that some meaningful relationship can be worked out for the community with that home."
Caulfield said the neighbors would prefer to have only four residents move into the five-bedroom, four-story brick home, instead of the eight persons the city plans to place there.
"If we could have four-person houses for everyone it would be better," Eichhorn said. "But if we reduce the population, which we are not, we would be denying four other people. If we did that across the city, we'd be denying a lot of people."
Eichhorn said the neighbors' claims that the home is too small to safely house eight persons and a supervisory staff are inaccurate. Although city zoning laws will permit no more than eight group home residents there, as many as 14 could be safely placed in the structure under the city fire safety code, she said.
In 1978, U.S. District Court Judge John H. Pratt ordered the city to close Forest Haven by 1987 and move its 700 mentally retarded residents to community settings. To avoid a contempt citation for moving only 14 of the required 100 residents last year, the District agreed in June to relocate 100 this year. A total of 50 of those must be in group homes by the end of September to meet that commitment.
Some residents of the Cleveland Park-Woodley Park neighborhood have complained that the city government is paying an exorbitant rent $1,500 a month for the Cathedral Avenue house, placing too many people in it, and failing to properly notify and educate neighbors about the mentally retarded occupants.
Caulfield said the neighbors have asked for a letter from the city government assuring them that the home will not be used for juvenile offenders and drug abusers. He contended that such a change in the type of people housed there could be made without a public hearing.
But Charles Inlander, the court-appointed monitor of the program to move Forest Haven residents to community-based homes, said, "That is a completely fallacious argument, because for those types of homes the zoning law makes a hearing mandatory. Every single precondition for the opening of the Cathedral Avenue home , which are hurdles for the retarded and protections for the community, has been met. As far as the community is concerned, every single issue is covered."
Inlander said the District "has the most stringent group-home law anywhere that I've been. It boils down to the fact that people in the community just don't want this home."
Vincent Gray, head of the D.C. Association for Retarded Citizens, an advocacy group that operates sheltered workshops, group homes and other services, said he disagrees with the decision to delay opening the home and views the community reaction as comparable to racism.
"I liken this to school segregation efforts, when I heard people say we have to prepare these youngsters for exposure to black children. I think we should inform neighbors of the causes and problems of the mentally retarded and then go right ahead and move them in."
Gray said few people understand that most mentally retarded persons are different from nonretarded persons only in that they learn more slowly.
"Ninety-seven percent of the retarded already live in the community," he said. "Why are we so up in arms about having the other 3 percent now in institutions moved to the community?"
City Council member Polly Shackleton (D-Ward 3), who attended the three-hour Wednesday meeting with the concerned neighbors, said she thinks the delay in opening is "a good thing to do, just to show that the department is responsive. I do feel that it was unfortunate they were not given enough information earlier ."