District officials, scrambling to meet a court-ordered deadline, are trying to move several dozen mentally retarded adults into group homes around the city by Oct. 1, and in the process are kicking up an unusually intense wave of opposition.
A 1977 court order to close Forest Haven, the city's large facility in Laurel for the mentally retarded, requires that a total of 100 patients be moved out of the institution each fiscal year until it is empty. Officials already have opened 42 group homes for mentally retarded adults in different neighborhoods around the city in the past few years and have encountered scattered opposition. But now they find both time and space pressures causing new tensions.
Some complaining residents say their neighborhoods are getting more group homes than others, though city officials say the homes are scattered evenly throughout the District. Neighbors also say they learned that the single-family homes near them were being turned into these group homes only 30 days before the new residents are to arrive and that they resent not being consulted.
Many of the citizens insist that their opposition is not based on ill feelings toward mentally retarded persons but in having any type of group homes nearby and in the city's handling of the moves. But city officials and local mental retardation experts say much of the opposition to the homes is based on fear or misunderstanding about the mentally retarded who would live in them.
The current plans involve eight group homes in different parts of the city, among neighborhoods from Takoma and Shepherd Parks in Northwest to near Hillcrest in far Southeast Washington.
At least three emotionally charged meetings, attended by between 50 and 100 citizens from most of the affected neighborhoods, have been held in the past two weeks. Lawsuits have been threatened, and letters and petitions of opposition have been sent to the Department of Human Services and to the mayor.
"These are the worst" community reactions to any group homes so far, said D.C. Social Services Commissioner Audrey Rowe.
Rowe said finding appropriate places to house the mentally retarded in the city will only get harder in the future. More than 400 residents will remain at Forest Haven after the current moves, and all must be housed somewhere in the District eventually. Rowe said the city may start looking soon into alternatives to single-family residences such as apartments, apartment houses and nursing home facilities.
U.S. District Court Judge John H. Pratt ordered Forest Haven closed in 1977 in connection with a lawsuit invovling the death of a 17-year-old resident there. The judge cited abuses of residents at what he called a substandard institution and ordered that they be sent to group homes in residential areas and other facilities.
Complaints at recent meetings have focused on what citizens say is a lack of notification by the city government.
"We resent the imperious way the District government has rammed this down our throats," one resident told city officials at a meeting last Thursday of Advisory Neighborhood Commission 4A.
But Vincent Gray, executive director of the District of Columbia Association for Retarded Citizens, which is the new court-appointed monitor of Forest Haven, said the complaints about the way the openings are being handled merely serve as an excuse to oppose mentally retarded persons as neighbors.
"A lot of what you hear is based on prejudice and misconceptions about retarded people," he said.
Why the opposition is so great this time around is difficult to pinpoint, but Gray said part of it may be that that the eight homes are opening all at once in an end-of-the-year rush to fulfill the court's mandate for this fiscal year. This leaves little time for city officials or his group to prepare the neighborhoods for the new residents and to defuse misunderstandings, he said.
At the ANC 4A meeting, residents had many questions about the homes proposed for their neighborhood, at 1639 Roxanna Road and 1419 Van Buren St. NW. They asked about the IQs of the six to eight mentally retarded persons who are to live in each home, what kind of work they can do, how they will get from the home to the van that takes them to day programs elsewhere and where they will walk when they go outside.
ANC Commissioner Natalie Howard said the community would have to consider whether any of the prospective residents, most of whom have been at Forest Haven most of their lives, have criminal records.
Rowe said the residents have voiced concerns about the sexuality of the retarded men, how to communicate with them, and whether their children will be approached by the new residents.
One woman who raised questions about the activities of the group home residents also said that neighbors are not opposed to the handicapped or mentally retarded but to group homes of any kind in the neighborhood. "If it were occupied by six students or six nuns, we would be opposed."
Others disagreed. "The question here is retardation," one man said. Earlier he had said the city "would expect us to sacrifice . . . quality of the neighborhood" to accommodate the group home.
To a few in the room, however, these kinds of statements recalled a different time and other attempts to exclude people from the neighborhood.
"I remember 25 years ago when none of you could come here to live because you were black," said one man. In those days, the community meetings were on how to keep blacks out, he said, adding that he and his wife "believe in protecting the rights of those more unfortunate than we."
Notification of the homes' opening was put in the District Register last month, and city officials say they tried to inform ANC members beforehand that the actions were coming. But they say they did everything they are required to do by law and that the citizens' opposition will not delay the opening of the homes.
Other group homes planned for Ward 4 are at 6915-6917 Maple St. NW and 7533 12th St. NW.
Two homes are scheduled to go in in Ward 7, at 2609 Branch Ave. SE and 3056 Q St. SE. The ANCs for those areas packed a meeting room last week to discuss the group homes' opening, participants said.
The week before, citizens in Ward 5 met to consider how to respond to a home going in at 1004 Urell Pl. NE. Residents there say the area already has its share of institutions--including Providence Hospital, the Kennedy Institute and the Occupational Training Center for the Handicapped now being built.
The one area that has been quiet so far in this round of openings is in an affluent area in Ward 3, where a home is planned at 5518 Sherier Pl. NW. This home is planned within blocks of two existing group homes for the mentally retarded.
Community leader Joel H. Garner said one of the homes has been there more than eight years and is relatively problem-free, though there were concerns about the other. But Garner agreed with city officials and mental retardation experts that, once the residents move into an area, they gain acceptance.
"Everybody wants David Rockefeller to move in next door," Garner said. "But people generally accept them [the mentally retarded] once they are here."