Home Again: Only a Home Ends Homelessness
Testimonials of neighbors living next to social service programs

Fears prove baseless: Group homes are good neighbors

By Lee Hammel  Staff Reporter Worcester Telegram & Gazette

Sunday, June 7, 1992

 

            Discovery that a group home for the mentally ill will be situated in

            a neighborhood can produce passion like almost nothing else.

            Most recently, neighbors in the Rice Square area shouted down mental

            health officials who wanted to explain their proposal at meetings

            held to protest the construction of a group home next to an

            elementary school on Massasoit Road.

 

            In Worcester and across the state such homes traditionally are met

            with suspicion and hostility. The tradition dates back two decades

            to when the state Department of Mental Health began establishing

            community residences for patients who left the large state hospitals

            under a deinstitutionalization policy.

 

            When neighbors learn of the plans for a group home - always after

            property is under contract and funding has been secured - there

            typically are meetings during which residents shower invective on

            agency officials, and elected officials berate appointed state

            officials. In the past, the atmosphere has been replete with

            everything from pleas for guarantees of safety to threats of arson.

 

            With the law and the courts on its side, the state Department of

            Mental Health has "over 3,468 units" of housing for mentally ill

            people in community settings, according to DMH Housing Director

            Thomas C. Anzer. From Pittsfield to Provincetown that means one heck

            of a lot of unhappy and fearful neighbors, one would think.

 

            But not so. No matter how powerful the opposition, it frequently

            dissipates once the group home's residents move in and dire

            predictions prove groundless, mental health officials said.

            Recently some neighbors of three of the most bitterly opposed group

            homes - when they were first announced - in Worcester were surveyed.

            Only one neighbor remains tenaciously opposed.

 

            NO CRIMES

            But all 14 neighbors interviewed - including the woman who is firmly

            opposed to mentally ill people living in neighborhoods - said that

            there have been no crimes or other disturbances that were feared.

            A group home was proposed for 10 Ludlow St. as a successor to a

            facility planned for the former Ropi's Family Villa. Mental health

            officials dropped Ropi's after virulent resistence, only to be met

            by even stiffer opposition to Ludlow Street.

 

            Three years ago John P. Pierce of 34 Bauer St. was a leader of

            opposition to the Ludlow Street group home operated by Worcester

            Area Community Mental Health Center. But Pierce said recently the

            group home has "been very quiet. We haven't seen anything we'd been

            warned about," such as obscene behavior.

 

            Three years ago, neighbors were opposed because there are many

            children in the neighborhood, the New Ludlow School is only two

            blocks away, and they did not have "an awful lot of knowledge about

            mental illness," Pierce said.

 

            "The credibility of DMH with its veil of secrecy - right away your

            suspicions are up," said Pierce, who is an airport commissioner and

            a teacher at Blackstone Valley Regional Vocational Technical High

            School, Upton. But with few incidents - indeed with little contact

            with residents of the group home over the years - Pierce said, "I

            don't think it's an issue any more" in the neighborhood.

 

            NO PROBLEMS NOW

            Brittan Square neighbors organized four years ago after the

            announcement that a group home called Santram House would be run by

            the Community Mental Health Center at 133 Paine St. But the home's

            neighbors who were interviewed have no problems with it now.

            "They've been good neighbors. Never a problem," said James B.

            Freeman, who lives next door with his wife and 7-month-old daughter.

 

            Richard T. and Gertrude M. Reilly, both 74, live on the second floor

            above the Freemans.

 

            "Now that we see these people there," Richard Reilly said, "I've had

            conversations. They've helped me up with cartons from my car."

            Reilly, who has lived there 40 years, said a 20-year-old man gave

            "me a lecture. I shouldn't be carrying those - you're too old."

 

            One of the 14 people interviewed is upset with the group home in her

            neighborhood. Jean R. Holden of 15 Chadwick St., who lives three

            doors from Oasis House, spoke at one of the meetings opposing the

            Rice Square group home. She urged neighbors there to fight the

            opening of the Massasoit Road facility.

 

            POLICE CALLED

            Holden said police have been called to Oasis House, a transitional

            home for eight homeless mentally ill adults at 9 Chadwick St., 18

            times in a year. She said the cause of the calls was not apparent to

            those outside the home, and she knows of no criminal behavior by any

            of the residents.

 

            "I don't think people who are chronically mentally ill, who will

            never recover, who are suffering from schizophrenia, who are not on

            medication, who are potentially dangerous" should live in the

            community, Holden said. "That's the issue.

 

            "Not that they are doing anything today or tomorrow or even in five

            years. The government is forcing us to live with people who have the

            potential to be dangerous," she said and listed several reported

            incidents of homicide and other crime committed by people who were

            mentally ill.

 

            "Why can't they take these empty rooms at the Worcester State

            Hospital, where they can turn them into more of a homelike

            atmopshere" and have mentally ill people live there instead of in

            neighborhoods? Holden asked.

 

            Paul A. Richard, Community Mental Health Center director of

            development and public relations, said police were called to Oasis

            House by staff or residents 17 times in the two years of its

            existence. It is center policy at its eight group homes to call

            police to escort residents to emergency mental health services, if

            they go into crisis, according to Jerry A. Schlater, center

            associate director.

 

            POLICY CHANGE

            The policy probably will be changed because the center's clients say

            it makes them feel like criminals, Schlater said.

 

            "Mentally ill people are like everybody else as far as violence is

            concerned," said Paul S. Appelbaum, professor of psychiatry at the

            University of Massachusetts Medical School. Appelbaum specializes in

            the prediction and prevention of violent behavior.

 

            "In general they (group homes) don't appear to be a problem," Deputy

            Police Chief John J. Feeley said. "I don't see any evidence of"

            mentally ill people committing more crime than people who are not

            mentally ill.

 

            The same conclusion was reached in a study of 1,072 urban

            police-citizen encounters published by researcher Linda A. Teplin in

            the American Journal of Psychiatry in May 1985.

 

            In any case, Chadwick Street residents who were interviewed and who

            live closer than Jean Holden to Oasis House, say they are not

            concerned by the home. Lisa White, who has lived at the house she

            owns at 13 Chadwick St. for nine months, told a reporter who asked

            about Oasis House that she was unaware that there was a group home

            two doors from her.

 

            Larry E. Wambach, who has lived at 7 Chadwick St. for 23 years, said

            the group home next door is "less trouble than some other neighbors

            I've had. I'd welcome them anytime."

 

            SCOFFS

            Anzer, the DMH housing director, scoffed at the idea of keeping

            mentally ill people on hospital grounds when they don't need

            hospital services.

 

            "I'd ask any neighbor if they'd like to live in that circumstance,"

            he said. "The bottom line here is that people with mental illness

            are people, too. They deserve to have the opportunity to live where

            they choose just like you and I get to."

 

            Among politicians, and often among neighbors at meetings to discuss

            plans for group homes, the major sticking point usually is the

            lateness of the notice of the plans rather than fear of mentally ill

            people. The Department of Mental Health is adamant about not

            notifying neighbors early in its siting process as it continues to

            try to reach a total of 9,000 community beds statewide over the next

            nine or 10 years, Anzer said.

 

            Notifying neighbors before a group home is locked into the

            neighborhood "becomes synonymous with asking permission," Anzer

            said. "In our experience the result of asking permission is losing

            access to the neighborhood."

 

            The federal Fair Housing Act states that "people with mental illness

            belong in any community in the country," Anzer said, and "a group

            home should be treated as a single-family home" for zoning.

 

            DILEMMA

            It is a dilemma, Richard of the Community Mental Health Center said.

 

            "On the one hand you want to express some courtesy to your potential

            neigbhors," he said. "At the same time, people who do not have a

            disability ... are not required nor do they take it upon themselves

            to identify themselves to their new neighbors or to seek acceptance

            before moving into a community."

 

            Pierce, who led opposition to the Ludlow Street group home before he

            could see how it operated, acknowledged the dilemma.

 

            "When they said seriously mentally ill, I think of a Charlie

            Manson," Pierce said. "Once the DMH comes in, people aren't going to

            listen to what they say. In retrospect, if they came and told (me

            ahead of time) I probably still would have opposed it. For the life

            of me, in thinking back, I don't think there's any easy way of

            resolving an issue like this."

 

            Referring to lack of notice, Pierce's wife, Cheryl, said, "I can see

            why they choose the route they choose. I understand it better now."

            "The mentally ill need a place to be and to get better," said Dwight

            Porter, a neighbor of Oasis House. "If they keep kicking places like

            that out of the neighborhoods, where are they going to go?"

 

            On Ludlow Street, people are cordial

            Joseph A. DeFrancisco, 40, is one of the eight original residents of

            the group home for the mentally ill that opened in 1989 at 10 Ludlow

            St.

 

            He was there when neighbors were still feeling hostile because they

            were unable to keep the group home from their neighborhood. And he's

            there now that the home has faded as an issue.

            He likes it better now. DeFrancisco recounted how one of the primary

            opponents of the group home subsequently passed by some of the group

            home residents playing basketball. Spying 50 cents that had fallen

            out of one of their pockets, the man picked it up and returned it,

            DeFrancisco recalled warmly.

 

            `NO ANIMOSITY'

            Another time someone working in the neighborhood passed by the group

            home residents and said, " "Hi. How are you doing?' There's no

            animosity there. They knew where we were from," DeFrancisco said

            appreciatively.

 

            "It made me feel like in the old days, when I used to say "Hi, how

            you doing?' " DeFrancisco continued, remembering when he worked in a

            salvage yard before he got sick.

            Richard J. Macchi is another of the original residents of Ludlow

            House, which specializes in treating mentally ill people who have

            substance abuse problems.

 

            Macchi, 39, needs to return occasionally to Worcester State

            Hospital. He spent two weeks there recently after feeling suicidal.

            In the kitchen at Ludlow Street, where he was asked about a

            suggestion by an opponent of group homes how he would feel if he had

            to live at the state hospital permanently, Macchi said, "I wouldn't

            mind living at Worcester State Hospital."

 

            But, he said, "I'd rather live here because you have more freedom."

            He talked about the sober dances he used to attend in the Webster

            Square neighborhood, and going to Friendly's for coffee, and going

            roller skating.

 

            In April, Ludlow Street Program Director Michael Lebeaux took Macchi

            to a meeting at Our Lady of Lourdes Church, where people gathered to

            express their opposition to a planned group home at 76 Massasoit

            Road. Lebeaux wanted people to see Macchi for themselves to decide

            whether they have to fear violence from mentally ill people.

            But Lebeaux said Macchi never got to address the opponents because

            the "people were just yelling and screaming and we couldn't talk."

            Macchi said, "They thought we were violent, thought we were going to

            hurt them." Macchi said he wanted to tell them that he's been to

            Worcester State Hospital and lived in a group home and no one's ever

            hurt him. Lebeaux noted that Macchi's desire to tell people that he feels safe

            around mentally ill people shows that Macchi can't even conceive

            that people might be afraid of him.

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