Halfway house raises issues

June 8, 2007
By

John Ruch

PARKSIDE—Many residents concerned about a new halfway house for mentally ill residents on Peter Parley Road ended up accepting and even welcoming it into the neighborhood at a meeting last week with operator Bay Cove Human Services.

But they also chided Bay Cove for not notifying the community ahead of time with basic information—especially that the house is not intended for sex offenders or drug treatment. Bay Cove officials claimed anti-discrimination privacy ethics and laws prevented them from doing so, though they spoke relatively freely at the May 30 meeting held at a private home on Walnut Avenue.

“It came out loud and clear that nobody buys that privacy trumps community. Community process has to be respected,” Leslie Belay of the Parkside Neighborhood Association (PNA) told the Gazette after the meeting. The PNA, which meets only as needed, called and hosted the meeting.

“It’s such an ethical issue,” said Nancy Mahan, Bay Cove’s director of mental health services. “People don’t want their neighbors to know their personal business. This is a very private matter for everybody.”

Some residents also complained about “oversaturation” of group homes, halfway houses and non-profit institutions in the immediate area. The issue has long been controversial in Jamaica Plain. [See related story.]

Under zoning code, a group home houses five or more people and would be subject to review, according to Colleen Kennedy of the city’s Inspectional Services Department (ISD), who attended the meeting. The Peter Parley house will have only four residents and therefore requires no zoning review.

“It’s a group home, but it’s one person short of being a group home [under zoning code],” said one resident. “That doesn’t feel right to me.”

Charles Hollins, Bay Cove’s director of advocacy, claimed that if the agency was establishing a group home, it would do public outreach. The nature of a halfway house is more normalizing, he said, and therefore more confidential.

“It’s a delicate balance” between outreach and privacy, said state Rep. Liz Malia, who has long dealt with group home controversies and sits on the House committee on mental health and substance abuse, in a Gazette interview.

“I think, as a matter of policy, it’s good business for the agencies to connect with the neighborhood on some level,” Malia said. “If neighborhood folks have concerns, absolutely, neighbors have the right to know what’s going on.”

“The most important thing is for everybody to know what’s going on,” said Robert Orthman, an aide to City Councilor John Tobin, at the meeting.

Bay Cove is a non-profit agency with more than 80 sites in the Greater Boston/southwestern Massachusetts region, according to its web site. It provides services to seniors and people with developmental disabilities, mental illness and drug/alcohol addictions.

The house

Despite privacy issues, the Bay Cove officials were able to describe the house’s programming by saying what it is not. The exact street address was discussed at the meeting, but the Gazette has chosen not to publish it for privacy reasons.

The three-story house will be home to four adult men and women, apparently with mental illness. Mahan strongly implied that when she said, “I can’t tell you more about the people, but I am director of mental health services.”

“This is not a sex offender program. This is not a drug treatment program,” said Mahan. It’s also not for people straight out of prison, though some residents might have criminal records, she said.

It is housing for people who previously lived in a group home or shelter under 24-hour supervision. The Peter Parley house will have a staff member working in a third-floor office eight hours a day, during the day.

“It is not an institution,” Hollins said. “We’re not siting an institution. It’s not a group home. It’s an apartment for people with disabilities who are now able to live in their own place again.”

The house had just come under Bay Cove management and already had one resident living there at the time of the meeting.

Once the approximately 30 residents at the meeting heard this basic information, almost all of them said their concerns were lessened or removed. Only resident continued to express total opposition, saying residents of nearby group homes have harassed her children.

A next-door neighbor said the new use sounds like an improvement to him, noting that rowdy students used to live there.

“We know more about them than they know about us,” one resident said of the house’s new residents, adding she hopes people welcome them on the street.

About a third of the residents indicated that they work for physical or mental health care organizations—some at agencies similar to Bay Cove.

That includes the owner of the house, Park Place resident Teresa Roberts, a nurse who also works for a Somerville organization for people with developmental disabilities.

Roberts said she recently bought the house as her first real estate investment, and was contacted by Bay Cove about renting it.

“I was very excited at the possibility of renting my house to a similar organization [to the Somerville agency],” she said.

Privacy

Most residents focused concern on the secrecy of the organization moving into the neighborhood. As word of Bay Cove’s rental spread as a rumor, residents were left suspicious and fearing the worst.

“I never meant to be secretive,” Roberts said, explaining that the use didn’t seem controversial to her at the time.

Bay Cove officials explained their confidentiality stance without apologizing for it.

Hollins said Bay Cove clients often face discrimination due to their status and sometimes also their race. “That’s one reason we don’t just come out there [and announce plans],” Hollins said.

He added that fair housing laws and the Americans With Disabilities Act prohibits some types of information from being revealed.

“I do understand, when we go into a community, people wonder, ‘How will this impact my neighborhood?’” Hollins said. But, he noted, it is critical not to “stigmatize” the residents.

But residents questioned how much confidentiality is necessary and how much is convenient to avoid community controversy.

Citing privacy concerns, Hollins asked the Gazette not to publish even the name of the street. But Bay Cove’s own web site names it.

Resident Girma Belay said Bay Cove must have run into similar concerns before, and questioned why they couldn’t say everything they said at the meeting in a proactive manner without being asked to.

“You’re doing a disservice to this community,” he said. When Mahan countered with the privacy argument, he said, “We’re not asking the individual person to come here and be interrogated.”

“There’s no reason this had to happen,” said a resident who works for a similar agency. “We’re very approachable. I feel betrayed.”

A resident who is a psychiatrist noted that mental illness is relatively common, and that sufferers surely already live in the neighborhood. The real question, he said, is how the neighborhood learns about such a halfway house, “so you’re not all sitting here thinking these are all axe murderers.”

“We need to separate out our concerns about process from the reality of what this would mean in the community,” he said.

Malia noted that communication remains important after an agency is operating a house so that any problems like parking or noise can be addressed. Mahan gave out her full contact information at the meeting for that purpose.

Malia noted that in general, properties that generate problems or fall into disrepair can be brought to the attention of the Problem Properties Committee, which combines residents, ISD, police and elected officials to address repeat trouble spots. Malia fields Problem Properties tips at 722-2060.
Density

Residents also raised concerns about the sheer number of institutions in the neighborhood, whatever their quality.

Leslie Belay cited about eight significant sites in a quarter-mile radius, including group homes, a pre-release facility and a shelter.

Some residents said such uses put pressure on the residential neighborhood, as do crime and the big summer festivals in the adjacent Franklin Park.

“I’m sure these will be lovely neighbors,” said resident Peter Kadzis. But, he added, he’s concerned about the “creeping institutionalization of the neighborhood.”

The next-door neighbor disagreed, noting that several old nursing homes have closed and turned into private homes—including the one where the meeting was held.

“I think we have less institutionalization,” he said. “The trend I see in the neighborhood is exactly the opposite.”

But his opinion was in the minority, and the density of such facilities has long been an issue in JP.

Mahan said the Peter Parley house is funded through program money originally intended for housing in the new Harvard Commons development on the old Boston State Hospital site. But that didn’t work out for financial reasons, she said, so Bay Cove looked to rent houses elsewhere. The same program will pay to rent two houses in Dorchester, she said.

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