Although group homes for people with mental disabilities are a tough sell
in many communities (see box on
page 20), most problems
can be solved and tensions defused by a combination of education and
mediation, according to mental health officials.
All agree that good communication is the key to healthy community relations
and that it is in the interest of both the neighborhood and the special needs
housing facility to formulate strategies toward that end. Depending on the
nature of the facility, the site, and the neighborhood, this can take many
In situations in which the housing provider, the residents, and the
neighborhood have few concerns about the nature and operation of the facility,
the communication strategy may be fairly informal. A presentation at a
meeting may suffice. When there are many issues of concern between the
neighborhood and the housing provider, a more formal strategy may need to be
"It is important that communities have these discussions in a way
that the state facilitates thoughtful dialogue instead of just having general
discussions with knee-jerk reactions," said Michael Allen, a senior
staff attorney for the Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law, a Washington,
D.C.-based civil rights law firm that focuses on mental disability issues.
One of the country's most successful programs is the Group Homes Mediation
Program (GHMP) in Portland, Ore. For the past 10 years it has been at the
forefront of educating the public about the general needs of people with
mental disabilities and also providing mediation services when instances of
outright opposition to a group home has arisen. Portland uses mediators to get
neighbors, developers, and facility residents talking about their worries,
offering a variety of ways to engage specific issues and trying to resolve
Eric King coordinates the City of Portland/Multnomah County Community
Residential Siting Program (CRSP) through the City of Portland's Office of
Neighborhood Involvement. The CRSP is designed to be a centralized point of
information and referral to deal with questions and concerns about choosing
sites for residential social services, as well as to provide
mediation/facilitation services for groups in conflict.
"While most of the kinds of housing we deal with are not legally
required to participate in the CRSP's siting facilitation process, our
experience has shown that when providers get involved with our office at the
early stages of the siting process, many of the pitfalls of siting a facility
are avoided, and the results are more often satisfactory to neighbors,
providers, and clients," King explained to Psychiatric
Once a facility is established in the community, the CRSP can provide
further assistance to neighbors if problems should arise with that facility's
operation. If a good-neighbor agreement exists, they can help make sure all
parties follow this agreement in good faith through mediation services or they
can help create one if none exists. In addition, they can also act as a
go-between to facilitate good relations between the facility's operators and
"It is really difficult sometimes for a provider to go into a
neighborhood and site special-needs housing and try to control that
process," King said. "One challenge is providing residents with
information and educating them about what it means to live with someone with
an illness or who has a mental disability or who is recovering from a drug or
alcohol problem. A multitude of services that are provided with the housing
must be tailored to meet a variety of individual needs."
A major hurdle, King observed, is disabusing people of what they have read
in the media about group homes and mental illness. Many people get their
perception of what it means to have a disability or mental illness from the
Community concerns are not always obvious. Some often mask the real issue,
which is the fear many people have of new residents who come from an
institution. Neighbors have trouble forming a realistic picture of them and
cannot get away from worrying about the risks involved. People do not seem to
have enough trust in the system to appreciate that the newcomers will be
adequately placed in a community-based environment, he said.
"After placement, an untoward incident may occur only 1 percent of
the time. But for some people even 1 percent of the time is a big deal, and
they don't want to be part of that statistic," he added.
To allay community fears, King arranges for a neutral party to enter into a
dialogue with neighbors to inform and educate them about the role and
functions of providers and their services. At the same time, he encourages the
person moving in to ask questions about the living and service arrangements.
This leads to a better understanding of how the services are going to be
provided, what kind of training the staff is going to have, and other details
that give neighbors a better picture of how the group home will be integrated
into the neighborhood.
"This process has to take place over some time," he emphasized."
You can't expect to have one neighborhood meeting and everything will
be straightened out. Lots of the concerns are complex, and people are highly
emotional about them because they involve their homes."
King is especially aware that for most people their home is their
number-one investment. He knows people will react strongly and get very
emotional to anything that threatens it, whether real or perceived.
While he stresses the importance of devising a public-involvement process
that educates people and enables them to get answers to their questions about
the group home in their neighborhood, he is not content to stop there. He is
also keen on educating residents of communities with group homes about the
various types of mental illness newcomers might have.
Neil Beroz, vice president of housing at CRSP, the largest mental health
care provider in Portland, told Psychiatric News that Portland's CRSP
has been of great help in mediating differences with the neighbors in local
communities, in providing a forum for neighbors and service providers to come
together to discuss their concerns. They are also a neutral party to whom
others can complain about how residents are treated.
"It's a very worthwhile program, and it has made our job a lot easier
in terms of fighting things," he added.
Virtually every state or county mental health authority has someone, such
as a chief psychiatrist, in charge of considering the effect of its
residential program, but most psychiatrists at behavioral health care centers
are busy with clinical care.
When asked whether it would be helpful to get psychiatrists involved in
siting groups homes and the mediation process, since most Americans place
stock in what physicians tell them, Beroz replied that it might be worth
More information about Portland's program is posted online at<www.portlandonline.com/oni/index.cfm?c=32417>.
Information on the Building Better Communities Network is posted online at<www.bettercommunities.org>.
Stories that show success in siting housing are posted under "Success
Stories" on the left side of the homepage. ▪