Not in my back yard Many oppose use of house for mental patients

February 06, 1992|By Patrick Ercolano

The Evening Sun reported Thursday that Sheppard and Enoch Pratt Health System officials called a meeting with Rodgers Forge residents to discuss plans to place an "alternative living unit" in the community. The story failed to mention that the meeting was set up at the insistence of the Rodgers Forge Community Association. The Evening Sun regrets the error.

In a tense 90-minute meeting last night, about 100 Rodgers Forge residents voiced their opinions of a plan by the Sheppard Pratt Health System to house mentally ill out-patients in the community just south of Towson.

Sheppard Pratt officials called the meeting, held in the auditorium of Rodgers Forge Elementary School, so residents of the 1,777-house community could learn more about the proposal to place three out-patients in a three-bedroom detached home at 7112 York Road this spring.

FOR THE RECORD - CORRECTION

Carl Francioli, who lives next door to the planned "alternative living unit," said, "I have nothing against the idea or against the types of people who will live there, but I have an investment to protect. My wife and I have every penny we own invested in our home, and you can't tell me this program isn't going to hurt my property value."

If the applause following similar statements was any indication, more than half the crowd opposed the plan. But some residents offered their support of the proposal, pointing out that

Rodgers Forge already has two ALUs virtually unknown to the community because they have been so free of problems.

Sheppard Pratt purchased the house last week for $132,000, or $12,000 below the list price. The patients, who have yet to be selected, will have been treated for an average of 30 days at the hospital for illnesses such as severe depression, eating disorders and schizophrenia.

The first three patients are expected to move in around April 1 and will reside at the house for about a year. They will be of the same sex and live without supervision, but they will be contacted daily by telephone and in person by hospital workers. The patients also will be able to phone Sheppard Pratt for assistance 24 hours a day.

They will be required to spend 20 hours each week in a job, a volunteer activity or a treatment program. The costs of the program will be paid by the patients themselves or their health insurers.

) See HOUSE, C6, Col. 1 HOUSE, From C1 Dr. Emile Bendit, a psychiatrist who heads Sheppard Pratt's ambulatory services department, told the residents that the hospital will carefully screen the patients intended for the ALU.

Dr. Bendit cited national studies indicating that such units do not hurt local property values or cause increases in crime.

"The majority of mental patients are not violent," he said.

The out-patients "must be able to be good neighbors," Dr. Bendit said. "The idea is for them to develop their social skills, to learn how to live normal lives like everyone else."

A hospital staffer would not live at the site "because the patients won't require 24-hour supervision," he added.

Since 1984, Sheppard Pratt has placed out-patients in approximately 30 apartment units in a Cockeysville complex, where they are supervised by a social worker or a nurse living on the site.

The hospital plans to buy two or three more houses for ALUs in the Towson area during the next two years, Dr. Bendit said.

After the doctor opened the floor to questions, a few polite queries broke the ice. But then several residents began peppering Dr. Bendit with questions and statements about their fears of violent crimes being committed by the patients and of another business establishing a foothold in the predominantly residential community. (The house faces a busy stretch of York Road, just south of a Crown gas station, High's and Royal Farm Store convenience shops and a Baskin-Robbins ice cream store.)

One man read a local newspaper item about a recent crime committed by two youths who were being treated at Sheppard Pratt for substance abuse. Dr. Bendit replied that substance abuse patients would not live in the ALU.

Del. Gerry Brewster, who represents Rodgers Forge, attended the meeting. In an interview, he stated his approval of the proposed ALU.

"Provided that Sheppard Pratt complies with all existing laws and regulations, they're entitled to do what they want to do," said Mr. Brewster, a Democrat. "I'm impressed that they came out here voluntarily to open themselves to these questions."

The delegate said he has co-sponsored legislation asking state government to establish a task force to study the use of residential properties for a business, a rape crisis center, a home for the mentally ill or other traditionally non-residential purposes.

"This sort of thing is a continuing problem in the neighborhoods. It's about time we got some focus on it," said Mr. Brewster.

Dr. Bendit said community covenants and local zoning regulations didn't apply to the ALU because they are superseded by a 1988 amendment to the federal Fair Housing Act, which prohibits discriminatory housing practices against handicapped people.

Rodgers Forge Community Association president Don Grauel said the organization has "no official view" on the planned ALU. However, he added that community members are seeking "further clarification" of legal points that he wouldn't identify, but that could be used as "ammunition" in an attempt to block the plan.

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