JP home to many facilities, controversies over the years

John Ruch

More than a decade ago, during a series of controversies over group homes, the state Department of Mental Health (DMH) acknowledged that Jamaica Plain had more than its share of group homes and declared a moratorium on permitting any more.

At that time, among those in agreement with DMH’s opinion was the executive director of Bay Cove Human Services, the operator of a currently controversial halfway house on Peter Parley Road. [See related story.]

The controversy focused on group homes, which appear to have been popular before the 1996 moratorium.

Major controversies go back at least to 1993, when the agency Vinfen placed a group home on Orchard Street and notified the community only after the deal was done.

In 1995, there was another Vinfen group home controversy on Catharine Street. As with the Peter Parley house, most of the residents were supportive, but critical of the secretive process. Vinfen cited privacy ethics and laws.

That same year, the Parkside neighborhood had conflict with Vinfen over a Glen Road group home. Vinfen outraged neighbors by repeatedly trying to strip historic details from the Victorian house and cover it with vinyl siding. Leslie Belay threatened legal action at that time.

In 1996, massive controversy erupted over a S. Huntington Avenue group home operated by Beacon Hill Multicultural Psychological Associates. The home drew many complaints about bad or criminal behavior by residents, and turned out not to have a proper zoning variance.

Oversaturation of the neighborhood was also an issue, with at least five group homes identified in the area.

Citing privacy concerns, the agency’s director refused to answer basic questions about the home, including whether child molesters were housed there. Bitter controversy about the house divided the community and the Jamaica Plain Neighborhood Council.

In the end, DMH decided to end its contract with the agency. For a brief period, Bay Cove took over the house, but then closed it, saying too many renovations were needed. Bay Cove also faced having to get zoning variances.

Amid the controversy, DMH declared a moratorium on group homes in JP. The moratorium did not include smaller halfway houses.

The DMH did not return a Gazette phone call about whether the moratorium is still in effect.

A DMH spokesperson at that time told the Gazette that the decision was about “fairness and equitable distribution.” Statistics showed that JP and Dorchester had especially high concentrations of group homes, while neighborhoods like West Roxbury and Back Bay had very few.

“JP has had programs sited here for many years,” said state Rep. Liz Malia. “Back when the real estate market was awful, it was really popular.”

The former operator of the S. Huntington Avenue house agreed at the time that the neighborhood was oversaturated, saying he never would have opened the group home there if he had known.

And when Bay Cove took over the facility, its executive director told the Gazette, “I’m very sensitive to the saturation issue. JP has done its share.”
Besides the moratorium, the controversy led the Jamaica Plain Neighborhood Council to plan guidelines for siting group homes in the neighborhood, though it’s unclear if any were actually written.

It also had some influence on community process. When New Community Services proposed a group home on Washington Street on the edge of the Parkside neighborhood in 1996, it openly announced the plan in a letter to the Gazette and asked for community support.

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