Planners of Alexandria's first halfway house for persons with a history of emotional illness have a problem. Hundreds of residents in the area surrounding the site chosen for the facility don't want it in their midst.
Those opposed to the halfway house have formed an organization called Concerned Neighborhood Citizens. Petitions bearing 450 signatures were delivered Wednesday to Alexandria city officials, demanding a halt to occupancy plans for the house.
"We're concerned about our personal safety, and with the sneaky way this whole thing was put through," said Patrick Devereux, chairman of the group. "There was no public notice."
The halfway house is to be located in a two-story red and white frame home at 5325 Polk Ave. in western Alexandria. It is secluded from Polk Avenue, sitting on a hill at the end of a winding road through a wooded area.
The New Hope Foundation, a non-profit organization, formed to raise funds for the facility, signed a lease Aug. 4 to rent the house, at $377 a month.
The house is planned as a transitional living facility for up to seven Alexandrians who have a history of acute (short-term) psychological or emotional problems, according to Alan Levinson, New Hope's consultant. The halfway house will be operated by the Alexandria Community Mental Health Center Levinson said.
Many who live in the homes, town houses, and apartments surrounding the site are determined to stop, or at least delay, occupancy. The petitions ask for the City Council to hold a hearing on the matter, ask that the city reconsider an administrator's decision that the facility qualifies as a single-family dwelling, requests a study of the impact of the halfway house on the neighborhoods, and asks for an investigation of why the neighbors did not find out about pland for the house "in an acceptable and timely manner."
Devereux said he and others don't feel their questions about admissions criteria and the potential danger of such a facility have been answered.
The group is raising funds for a lawyer, and is considering several suits and other legal actions to stall the opening of the house, which has been set for Oct. 1.
Those opposed to the facility met city officials in a question and answer session last month. More than 90 per cent of those who attended indicated afterward that they were not satisfied with the answers, Devereux said.
"My anxiety level actually went up tremendously after the meeting," Devereux said.
Levinson, the New Hope Foundation consultant, gives this example of the type of person who would be living at the halfway house:
A woman, 25, employed by the government and living alone, has moved to Alexandria from Iowa. She is notified that her parents have been killed in a house fire in Iowa. After returning from burying her parents, the woman suffers emotional trauma and is hospitalized in the Northern Virginia Mental Health Institute. After a brief stay, she is released, but doctors feel she is not yet ready to live alone.
Dr. Levinson said, a young adult who is having problems living at home with his family but who is unable to live alone, also would be an acceptable resident. Convicted felons would be ineligible, he said.
Levinson and others said persons accepted probably will have jobs or be in school, and while living at the halfway house they will undergo some kind of therapy or treatment elsewhere. There will be two live-in house counselors.
Still, the feeling persists among many of the residents in the affluent West End neighborhood surrounding the site that dangerous persons may live there.
E. Stephen Heisley, whose home is about 150 yards from the halfway house said he is afraid that someday another type of person may be admitted.
"Suppose I am close to the City Council members. And I have a son, 18, who rapes a 72-year-old woman. His psychiatrist says he's emotionally ill, and officials want to send him away. Suppose I go down and talk to city officials and to a judge, and tell them I want my son at Polk (Avenue)," Heisley suggested. "I sure wouldn't want a person like that in the halfway house . . . Son of Sam could have an acute disorder and I certainly don't think he would be fit for such a facility. There's just no protection. The whole thing has been botched up."
Heisley is one of two men who have filed an appeal with the zoning office, challenging an informal oral opinion, given by zoning administrator Charles Moore Jr., that the halfway house fits the definition of a single-family home.
Moore said an official opinion will be made, probably this week. He said however, that because appeals have already been filed, the halfway house probably cannot open until the Zoning Board of Appeals has heard them. The next meeting of the board is Oct. 13, Moore said.
The current controversy is the second over a halfway house in Alexandria. Last year a furor ensued when it became known that the Virginia State Department of Corrections planned to turn a downtown hotel into a halfway for convicts on probation.
State officials abandoned the plan after businessmen, the city police chief and the commonwealth's attorney objected to it. The facility would have been located in an area of ongoing efforts to reduce crime: centers for the treatment of alcoholics and drug users were nearby.