Balto. County has the most group homes

Highest concentration is in west side's older neighborhoods

`Fair distribution' urged

Operators say they try to avoid clustering treatment centers

April 11, 1999|By Dail Willis and Liz Atwood | Dail Willis and Liz Atwood,SUN STAFF

Baltimore County's ZIP code 21244 stretches from the bustling Beltway to rolling hills and farms along the Patapsco River and Brice Run, but its population is clustered in the older neighborhoods that flank Interstate 695.

Something else is clustered in those west-side neighborhoods: group homes serving a statewide population of troubled teens and disabled adults. ZIP code 21244 includes 63 state-licensed group homes, the highest concentration of such facilities in the state.

More than a quarter of Maryland's 1,300 group homes are in Baltimore County, according to state licensing records. Baltimore County has twice as many group homes as any other jurisdiction in the state and more than the city of Baltimore and Anne Arundel, Carroll and Howard counties combined.

The concentration of group homes erodes property values and discourages revitalization of older neighborhoods, residents say. Transient juveniles, many with special education needs, strain resources at some neighborhood schools.

Residents of Baltimore County's west side -- joined by those from older neighborhoods in other counties -- have launched a campaign to change the laws and policies they say are to blame.

"It's so wrong to concentrate your largest amount of group homes in communities struggling for community conservation and preservation," said Ella White Campbell, director of the Liberty Road Community Council.

Residents of Randallstown, Pikesville, Woodlawn and Gwynn Oak have long grumbled about group homes clustered in their neighborhoods. This year, their resentment turned to anger when a well-to-do Worthington Valley community blocked the opening of a group home there and questioned whether a site under consideration on the county's west side might be more appropriate.

"Let's have a fair distribution," said William Obriecht, a Woodlawn community activist.

The agencies that license and use group homes, and the people who operate them, say the clustering is the result of the federal Fair Housing Act, market forces and a state commitment to residential -- rather than institutional -- treatment. The attributes that attract individual buyers to the west side -- spacious and affordable houses on quiet residential streets -- also appeal to operators of group homes .

Affordable houses

"If you look at those areas, there are big houses, affordable houses," said Walter G. R. Wirsching, assistant secretary for programs in the Department of Juvenile Justice, which places adolescents in group homes rented or purchased by private operators.

"You can buy an enormous house -- five bedrooms, a living room, a dining room, basement, a decent yard -- for under $100,000," he said. "You look for houses that have the kind of size in other locations, you're looking at a lot of increased cost."

Baltimore County's older communities on the west side have other features that make them attractive to operators of homes for adults. Neighborhoods are safe and close to public transportation, shopping and jobs.

The state's policy is to use residential treatment whenever possible, but Wirsching and others acknowledge that the policy is unpopular in neighborhoods where group homes are located.

"People see it as government infringement on their rights," said Nancy Slaterbeck, resource development coordinator for the Governor's Office of Children, Youth and Families.

Added demands on schools

Residents also object to juvenile homes on the west side because of the added demands on schools.

School records don't distinguish between juveniles in group homes and those in foster care. About 1,000 students who are not living with their parents are enrolled in county schools, said Baltimore County schools spokesman Charles Herndon.

One problem is transience. Many of those 1,000 students arrive after the start of the school year or leave in the middle of it, Herndon said. Many are not counted in the county's enrollment figures, which determine state funding. Some need special education.

"We have to kind of scramble to find the appropriate resources," Herndon said. "It's a problem across the system and particularly on the west side."

Fair Housing Act

Even if state officials wanted to direct group home operators out of one area and into another, federal law prevents it.

"Under the Fair Housing Act amendments of 1998, you cannot steer people away from a certain area," Slaterbeck said. "The law was put in because people with disabilities could not live in communities. No community wanted them."

The state does not operate group homes directly. It pays private companies, which rent or buy the homes, to provide those services. The majority of those facilities care for the mentally ill, developmentally disabled and troubled juveniles.

Fearful of increased crime, residents are wary and often hostile when such facilities are proposed for their communities.

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