Group homes and George

October 19, 1997|By Elise Armacost

IN OUR postcard-pretty community, the neighbors include TC two men who do not live in a group home, although they could. They are mentally disabled. I'll confess they scared me a little at first.

We learned soon enough that they were harmless. One likes magazines; you often see him sitting on the sidewalk, going through the recyclables.

The other, George, used to bring the newspaper to us every morning; once he accidentally threw it through the glass storm door. Two years ago we found him lying, half-frozen, in a snowdrift in our yard. The neighbor who keeps an eye out for him came right over, and together we warmed him up with blankets and coffee. We didn't see him for awhile after that, and worried why. We were glad when a few months ago he rapped on the door again, newspaper in hand.

I think about George and the magazine man whenever controversy over group homes flares up in some suburban neighborhood. Right now, Loch Raven residents are dead set against plans to bring six mentally disabled people to their community. What if George needed to live there? Do people with limitations deserve to be treated like the plague?

The answer is no, and fortunately federal fair housing law protects them from being bullied into homelessness. It is odd how something admirable -- a community's concern for its safety and integrity -- can sound so small and mean when people who do not fit the neighborhood mold are involved.

And yet it is unfair, I think, to imply that every person who feels a qualm about group homes is a bigot. Unfair not just because group homes (like other neighbors) do occasionally cause problems, but because the very essence of the suburban dream is predictable homogeneity.

People like living around those with similar incomes, educational values and tastes in exterior home decorating. The tendency to fight anything that threatens to disrupt that predictability is usually more instinctive than malevolent.

P. David Fields, director of Baltimore County's program to preserve older neighborhoods, recently noted that one of the less fortunate traits of this generation of middle Americans is the notion that "it is all right not to care."

This is not to say most people believe recovering addicts, the handicapped and troubled youths should be locked away in institutions again -- only that they prefer not to deal with them as neighbors. No one envisions a retarded man riffling through old magazines alongside his or her picket fence.

Exempt homes

Nor is it surprising, at a time when local laws protect residential areas from virtually any sign of the rest of the world, that people are shocked to learn that group homes are exempt from local authority, including notification hearings.

State and federal authorities have determined that small numbers of people living under one roof constitute a "family," whether they are the traditional man, woman and child, a homosexual couple, college roommates or disabled people under institutional supervision. Requiring certain families to post notification of pending arrival is discriminatory.

Baltimore County Councilman Doug Riley, R-Towson, who opposes the Loch Raven group homes, argues rather persuasively that the institutional component should make group homes different from other families and therefore subject to local jurisdiction.

Nonetheless, there is an important reason why federal and state governments have taken this matter out of local hands: the virulent opposition group homes so often provoke.

Local officials are susceptible to pressures from their constituents, which is not a good thing when prejudicial sentiments are involved. Would desegregation have occurred by now if the federal government had left the matter to local governments?

The objectives of deinstitutionalization -- teaching the disabled to get along with the world and vice versa -- are good ones. Of course no one, including group home supporters, believes it's wise for any one community to have too many.

It's one thing for our little village to watch over two, three or four people like George; it would be quite another to support 20 or 30. Besides, too many group homes in one place thwarts the goal of blending the disabled, unnoticed, among us.

Unfortunately some communities are being overwhelmed with group homes because they are affordable. Increasing the stock of affordable housing everywhere is one answer to this problem.

Another might be having the state, which licenses group homes, set limits on how many can locate within an area, perhaps using an arrangement similar to that in the settlement of an anti-discrimination lawsuit that scatters poor Baltimore families in the suburbs. The settlement recognized that, for the families as well as communities, it is sensible to avoid concentrating needy populations.

We are not wrong in asking to bear only our fair share of society's troubles. What we cannot ask is to be allowed not to care.

Elise Armacost writes editorials for The Sun.

Pub Date: 10/19/97

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