Walls Of Institutions Come Down For Mentally Retarded

Group Home Provides Men With More Normal Housing, Lifestyle

April 14, 1991|By Daniel P. Clemens Jr. | Daniel P. Clemens Jr.,Staff writer

NEW WINDSOR — The split-level house on Stone Chapel Road hardly exudes luxuriousness.

The brick-faced home is a modest one, featuring four bedrooms,2 1/2 baths, a two-car garage and a wood deck on about two acres.

But for three men who live there, the house might as well be a palace.

Tommy French, John George and Kenneth Wolf -- who are mentally retarded -- formerly lived in an institution.

Now, through a state program that provides housing for retarded adults, the men residein a traditional home in the community.

"It's more than a house,"said David Coughlin, executive director of Richcroft Inc., a privatenon-profit agency that acquires homes through the program. "It's a home."

Recently purchased by Richcroft, the Stone Chapel Road home brings to 11 the number of properties in the Baltimore region the agency has acquired. Richcroft -- based in Hunt Valley, Baltimore County-- rents four other homes.

The house is Richcroft's fifth in Carroll, while a sixth will be ready for occupation soon on Route 30 in the Greenmount area.

"It's a stabilizing force, seeing people with significant disabilities live in the community," Coughlin said.

The Home Acquisition Program began in the mid-1980s, under the auspicesof the Maryland Department of Housing and Community Development, Coughlin said. The program is aimed at establishing alternatives to institutionalized living for mentally retarded adults.

"The residents of group homes have the opportunity to live their lives as normally as possible in established communities," said Jacqueline Rogers, secretary of the housing and community development department.

The institutional setting began to come under question in the early '70s, Coughlin said, as to whether the residents needs were best being served.

"Housing is a basic need for all of us," he said. "We're just trying to correct the housing model for disabled people."

Living in the New Windsor home represents a profound departure from the men's previous living conditions, Coughlin said, which typically are marked by the rigid, "block treatment" setting of the institution.

Now French, George and Wolf can decorate their home as they please, arrange meals around their jobs or other activities and relax on the deck when they please.

"We promote quality of life for people," Coughlin said. "(Institutions) are impersonal. They're demoralizing. They create social distance between people."

More importantly, Coughlin said, the residents are part of the community.

"There's a sense of community participation," he said. "That's the name of the game. You're trying to break down the stereotypes, to break down the stigma of being disabled."

The primary financing source for Richcroft is the state Developmental Disabilities Administration, a division of the Maryland Department of Health. The money is lent to Richcroft through housing and community development department. The $142,800 for the New Windsor home was lent to the agency at 6 percent interest, payable over 25 years.

Richcroft, which has an annual budget of about $2 million, then buys the home, which Coughlin said are in turn rented to the residents.

The three men living in the house pay rent of $920 a month, with each paying an amount based on his financial means. The home is staffed by a house manager, a weekend assistant and two part-time assistants.

"Our purpose is to integrate," Coughlin said. "We want to be more like people than more unlike people. (Neighbors) willsee them as people first, and as people with disabilities secondly."

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