Group homes create independence for disabled

jojacobs@vagazette.com

WILLIAMSBURG While the group home planned for Woodmere Drive causes concern among neighbors as well as city and school officials, the facility may be a cause for celebration among its future residents and mental health advocates.

While close to 100 group homes exist for the intellectually disabled in Williamsburg, James City County and York County, the Woodmere Drive facility is the first of its kind in the area to transition mentally ill patients into independent living, said David Coe, executive director for Colonial Behavioral Health. Colonial Behavioral Health is a local health organization that serves individuals struggling with mental illness and intellectual disability.

The home on Woodmere Drive being established by Gateway Homes of Greater Richmond to service the mentally ill has become a lightning rod for some neighbors in the Walsingham Academy area because of the perceived danger and the facility's proximity to the school. Another point of controversy is the perceived lack of transparency on Gateway's part in the process of selecting the property for use as a group home.

Homeowners and city officials have protested the group home since late August, when city officials say they first heard of it, and news trickled through the area where the home will be located. Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services approved the license for the home on Sept. 8. Local residents continue to organize an effort to resist the home, Sen. Majority Leader Thomas Norment, R-James City, has written a letter on neighbors' behalf to Hampton-Newport News Community Services Board protesting the group home's location.

Hampton-Newport News Community Services Board is a mental health services organization that provided the state money for Gateway's home.

However, such group homes exist to provide approved residents a place to transition into independent lives after struggling with mental illness and provide a means of being part of wider community.

"It helps them experience the community," said Daniel Herr of the value of living within the community. Herr is the assistant commissioner for behavioral health at the state agency that approved the license.

Such facilities fill a need for mentally ill people who want to be more independent but don't have the resources to move into a community on their own, Herr said.

Individuals who reside in the group home are screened by Gateway, which forbids sexual offenders at the site, according to Lynda Hyatt, executive and clinical director at Gateway. Two supervisors staff the house 24/7 to assist its eight residents.

The services that will be provided at Woodmere Drive are distinct from group homes for the intellectually disabled. The new facility exists to transition its residents into independent living while group homes for the intellectually disabled often become the homes for these individuals, Coe said.

The Woodmere Drive group home is considered a supervised living residential service by the state, said Kristin Yavorsky, homeless projects coordinator.

Rather than an assisted care facility, Woodmere residents will learn home management skills like cooking and cleaning with the direction of specialized care as part of an eventual transition to an independent living situation, Yavorsky said. Stays at the home will be flexible, ranging from a matter of months to more than a year. Gateway has a good track record with group homes similar to the Woodmere Drive facility, Coe said.

A common concern among local residents resistant to the group home is a lack of specific knowledge about what kind of people will be at the home. According to Herr, a balance exists between the rights of the mentally ill and the interest of the community. He said privacy laws protect residents of the group home just as the laws protect everyone, but that it's in the interest of a group home to facilitate conversations with its community.

Herr said he believes many families are affected by mental illness, so it's important to be sensitive to the needs of people that struggle with mental illness.

"All of us would want opportunity for loved ones to live normally," Herr said.

Jacobs can be reached by phone at 757-298-6007.

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