In a Sept. 10 story in The Washington Post on the planned establishment of the group home, quotes attributed to Dale Sonnenberg, a social worker and a resident of the neighborhood, were printed out of context, leaving the impression that she opposed the home. There is no question that she and her husband Stephen Sonnenberg, a psychiatrist, support the home. The Washington Post regrets the minunderstanding.
When John Risher of Cleveland Park was the D.C. corporation counsel he helped ensure that the city carried out a judge's order to move mentally retarded patients from institutions to residential homes.
Stephen C. Caulfield of Cleveland Park pioneered the use of community-based rehabilitation homes in New York City in the 1960s, while Stephen Sonnenberg of Cleveland Park, a student of Caulfield's, is a psychiatrist who long has been committed to the halfway-house movement.
But now that the Joseph P. Kennedy Jr. Institute, taking advantage of a month-old city law, is about to open a home for six moderately retarded women in affluent Cleveland Park, some of these neighbors have uncomfortably moved to oppose the home in their back yard.
Privately, some of the neighbors say the halfway house, located in a five-bedroom, four-story brick house at 3223 Cathedral Ave. NW, will disrupt their peaceful, ivy-vined block.
The women at the home, scheduled to open next Tuesday, are all former residents of the city's Forest Haven institution in Laurel who now work in mailing and food service jobs in sheltered workshops. For the last two years, the women have lived in a similar community facility that is being closed.
Nearby residents publicly say they are outraged because the city, which hired the Kennedy Institute to run the facility, is paying "excessive" rent $1,500 a month for the house, eventually intends to house eight or nine persons there, and ignored neighbors in planning the facility. Most of them insist they are not opposed to location of the facility on their street. Some expressed concern for small children who habitually play in an alley behind the house.
Among other opponents of the facility are NBC reporter Chris Wallace, who lives next door to the facility, and C.D. Ward, one-time aide to former vice president Spiro T. Agnew who owns the tennis court across the alley from the home.
The critics have said repeatedly that they were not appropriately notified of the plans for the home and only learned of them through an obscure notice in the D.C. Register, an official listing of city government actions. Both city government and Kennedy Institute spokeswomen concede that they did not adequately inform the neighborhood.
"We don't know who these people are. Retarded people, what does that mean?" asked Sonnenberg's wife, Dale, a social worker. "All of a sudden you wake up one morning and you hear that eight retarded people are moving into your street. This is a neighborhood of families and children, of doctors and lawyers and government workers and journalists."
Caulfield, the spokesman for the group, said the opponents have not hired a lawyer to fight opening of the home, but several other residents said that legal action to block or alter the city's plan is under consideration. Two attorneys accompanied a delegation that met on Tuesday with Jan Eichhorn, chief of the city's Community Services bureau, the agency responsible for moving Forest Haven's residents.
"They would prefer that it not be opened," Eichhorn said. "They feel it's a residential neighborhood for single families." Such concern is "entirely valid," she added.
"Most of the people here really care and support the downtrodden," Dale Sonnenberg said, "but nobody has helped us to understand. We're certainly not going to play bridge with them the group home residents but who knows? Who knows how many housekeepers around here are mentally retarded?"
A Tuesday night meeting of more than 70 in Caulfield's home produced a petition to Mayor Marion Barry urging a delay in opening the house until at least Sept. 30, and requesting public hearings "for a full and complete review of the appropriateness of this site . . . "
Chief among their concerns, the opponents said, are that eight residents "significantly exceeds neighborhood standards," that the city has agreed to rent the house for nearly twice the fair market value and that the community has not been given "oversight authority" for management of the house.
Barry said at a news conference yesterday that "every community should take its share" of such facilities. He noted that some of his Suitland Road SE neighbors have objected to placement of formerly institutionalized people near his home.
Some of the Cleveland Park residents, including Risher, have sought unsuccessfully to enlist the support of City Council member Polly Shackleton (D-Ward 3) in their fight.
"Everybody is very sympathetic about getting people out of these innstitutions, but 'not in my neighborhood,' " Shackleton said. She noted that the city is under a 1978 federal court order to move Forest Haven's residents to homes in the community and that the city has a two-year-old law mandating equal rights in housing for the mentally handicapped.
Location of the facility at the Cathedral Avenue home was made possible last month when new zoning regulations were approved by the city which permit such group homes in residential neighborhoods and increased the allowable number of people who can live in them.
The Kennedy Institute, a 21-year-old organization for the mentally retarded, recently contracted with the city to manage seven such homes. It will manage the house with full-time residential supervisory staff, according to Eichhorn.
The eight women eventually slated to to live there are "a lovely group of ladies" with no behavior problems, Eichhorn said. The women now live with no difficulty in a similarly supervised house near 13th and R streets NW, she said. Although the current location is safe for the residents when they are inside, it is located between the drug traffic concentrated around 14th and U streets and the prostitution trade of Logan Circle, both good reasons to relocate, she said.
"I don't think there is any question but that they are trying to find a way out, but I don't believe there is any legal way out," said one person familiar with the outcry who asked not to be identified. "It's one thing for people to be very liberal and support the right causes, but they just didn't expect it to be next door. They view themselves as living in a protected environment and the issues they are raising are spurious."
A longtime resident of Cleveland Park who disagrees with the opposition to the home said she has been saddened by her neighbors' dissension and hopes the women "don't feel this antagonism once they come."
Another man who has attended the community meetings was more blunt. "I think they're a bunch of bigots. The opponents always say it's all right as long as they don't get close to me."
Risher said he and his neighbors are "neither Neanderthal nor totally against the program. The reason for opposition is a lack of confidence that what the D.C. government is going to do will be in the best interest of the mentally retarded or the neighborhood."
Risher said he supports the program to locate group homes throughout the city, but feels the city has bungled its handling of the plan. He said he opposed and refused to sign the petition to the mayor. He said that in spite of the community's criticism, the opponents still should have supported the Cathedral Avenue site as a matter of principle.
Eichhorn said the city has agreed, as neighbors asked, to fence in the back yard and add a locked gate to the alley exit of the house. The gate and other renovations cost more than $14,000, according to Dixie Drabkin, coowner of the house with her husband, Bernard, a physician employed by the D.C. Department of Human Services.
Valued at about $170,000, the house originally was advertised for rent at $1,100 a month, but the rent was increased to offset renovation costs, she said.