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Group home for mentally challenged sparks neighborhood friction in South Boston

South Boston News
Plans call for this arts-and-crafts bungalow on Hodges Street in South Boston to be used as a group home for intellectually challenged adults. Its official says its residents just want a place to live quietly and learn life skills, but neighbors say they are afraid for their safety and that their property values will depreciate. / May 11, 2011
Neighbors of a planned group home for the mentally disabled at 1409 Hodges Street in South Boston say they’re concerned for their safety and their property values, but an official with the home says they have nothing to worry about.

Sue King, who lives in sight of the one-story white bungalow with a shaded porch, said she fears for other widows in the vicinity, and is surprised that the group home doesn’t have to submit to a re-zoning process.

But, in fact, state law treats state-licensed group homes of up to eight unrelated adults just as it would a nuclear-family residence when it comes to zoning. This holds true for residents with mental illness, mental retardation or developmental disabilities (but not criminal records or drug-abuse issues). Local ordinances can’t override the law.

Across the street, Scott Slagle said he doesn’t believe he has any legal recourse. He bought his house a year and a half ago, and he and his wife have two toddlers. Last Friday, having heard of the proposed group home, he bought an alarm system.

Another neighbor who asked not to be named said she was worried about property values, and thought neighbors should have been alerted to the plan ahead of time. Some of their concern stemmed from their not being sure of the nature of the home: Some had heard, variously, over the past week that the home would house young men wearing ankle monitoring devices or mentally ill people.

Several, including King and Jean Owen, who lives next door to the proposed home, took their concerns to South Boston Town Council on Monday night.

They are circulating a petition in the area to ask the Town to do what it can to stop it. King said that the house’s yard is much too small for so many adults and that there’s no room for parking.

At Town Council, South Boston Police Capt. B.K. Lovelace said group homes in town had posed no threat.

In Halifax County, Sheriff’s Department Captain Steve Cassada said other than a resident occasionally wandering off, there is no trouble with the county’s group homes for the mentally challenged.

King’s not so sure: “There will be problems,” she believes.

People who need a home

But John Bamisile, Ph.D., of Safe Haven Inc. in Richmond, which is establishing the group home, said neighbors have nothing to worry about.

Living in the home will be “intellectually disabled” adults who cannot be cared for by their families, he said. None will have criminal records or records of sexual misconduct.

“Anybody with a criminal history cannot live there,” he said.

“Everything’s got to be strict,” he said.

The aim of the facility is to provide a comfortable, typical home and life-skills training so that the residents might one day live more independently. During the day, they will go elsewhere to learn skills, but he did not specify where.

The home “is not something strange,” Bamisile said. Town Manager Ted Daniel said South Boston has several other similar homes.

They are “unfortunate people,” Bamisile said, who want to “live in the community just like you and I” and could be “from anybody’s family.”

The resident’s family pays for his or her care, he said; if they cannot afford it, Medicare or Medicaid picks up the tab.

The home will be state-licensed, Bamisile said, and will have round-the-clock staffing. He did not know how many would be employed there or when it would open, as he is still going through the licensing process. He said he did not know if he would open more homes in South Boston.

He is renting the house from property owner Donna Maxey of South Boston, according to his business license application.

Daniel said the Town of South Boston has routine oversight of the home in that it issued a business license, would have its building official issue a certificate of occupancy and would have its fire marshal inspect for safety, as required.

Safe Haven Inc. also has several group homes in Richmond for mentally retarded children and adults.

Daniel said lobbying and petitioning was unlikely to have any effect because the Town has no control over the group home or its location. Neither the group-home operator nor the Town is required to notify neighbors, he said.

‘No major issues’ elsewhere

Meghan McGuire, communications director with the Virginia Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services, said Bamisile’s Richmond facilities had “no major issues” with compliance.

To get a state license for a new home, she said, an applicant must submit a working budget showing projected revenue and expenses for the first year of operation, documentation of working capital, a business license, information about the type of service provided, a staffing plan, employee credentials or job descriptions, a records-management policy, a certificate of occupancy, a detailed floor plan and any required inspections.

The applicant also needs to submit and receive approval of required human-rights policies and procedures and affiliate itself with a local human-rights committee. The applicant sets up an account and requests criminal history and background investigations for identified staff. The home must have an on-site review that includes interviews with applicants as well as compliance with other regulations and copies of forms and sample client and personnel records, McGuire said.

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In the past I have been employed as an attendant for the intellectually challenged adult(s). I find it to be rewarding work; because "when you help another person, you help yourself". Unfortunately since I have been in Virginia it appears to be almost impossible to find this kind of employment.What would I have to do to find employment with this organization. I believe that intellectually challenged adults deserve the same 'rights' that any other American deserves; since,they did not ask to be born this way!

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