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Creating a Safe Haven

Community meeting on apartments for homeless people prompts debate about methods.

Alexandria has a population of residents who live in the shadows — beset by mental illness and often plagued by substance abuse. Many of these people can fall through the cracks as they grow increasingly suspicious of social-service agencies that are trying to help them. To help this population, city officials want to take an approach known as a “low-demand structure” — offering help to people without forcing them to follow strict rules and guidelines.

“These are people who are very distrustful,” said Carol Layer, division director for extended care services for the city’s Department of Mental Health, Mental Retardation and Substance Abuse Services. “We wouldn’t be reaching all the people who need help if we didn’t take this approach.”

Last month, the Alexandria Community Services Board submitted an application for a special-use permit to create three apartments with 11 bedrooms for 12 homeless people at 115 North Patrick St.

Known as Safe Haven, the project is controversial among some who live near the proposed apartments — some of whom took part in a year-long court battle to challenge its zoning designation.

Now, with a new zoning designation and a city planning commission public hearing on the docket for March, board members are engaged in a community effort to assuage the fears of neighbors who have concerns about living next to apartments for homeless people with mental illnesses. In a community meeting earlier this week at Jefferson-Houston Elementary School, several neighborhood residents expressed their concerns over how the program will be operated.

“The mental anxiety that this will put neighbors through is irresponsible,” said Walter Grace, a dentist, who lives in the 900 block of Cameron Street. “It should be mandatory that they have drug testing, and it should be mandatory that they take their medication.”

LAYER, WHO WOULD oversee the operation of the apartment building, said that they could perform drug testing if needed, but that it would not be mandatory. She said that residents would be encouraged to take their medication, but they would not be expelled if they failed to stay on a prescribed regimen. In addition, those who stay in the apartments would be expected to be in the building at a certain time, but they would not be held to a curfew.

“These people will engage in services when they are offered on their own terms,” said Layer. “This is borne out in the research.”

She said that all residents would be subjected to a screening process that would exclude sex offenders, arsonists and people who display sociopathic behavior. She also pointed to other Safe Haven programs in the area where residents are long-term stable clients who have not posed a problem in their neighborhood such as “Susan’s Place” in Arlington and “Max’s Place” in Fairfax County. But several neighbors said that they were uncomfortable with the possibility that people with mental illness and substance abuse might be living in their neighborhood.

“Drug dealers are not stupid,” said Craig Miller, who filed the lawsuit against the city last year to oppose its zoning designation. “And if you consolidate drug users in one area, that will cause a problem.”

Miller’s suit charged that the city planning commission should have zoned the building as “congregate housing,” a designation that would require a special-use permit and a public hearing. But the planning commission zoned the Safe Haven project as a “multi-family use,” a designation that did not require a special use permit. In December, Circuit Court Judge Lisa Kemler ruled that the city had not followed its own zoning procedure — setting in motion the community meetings now taking place in anticipation of the March 6 public hearing before the planning commission.

“This is an experiment,” said Miller. “You guys don’t have any experiment dealing with this population because you can’t get them into your programs.”

“I would not characterize this an experiment,” Layer responded. “We already have contact with these people, but they are homeless so it’s inconsistent.”

SEVERAL NEIGHBORS came to the community meeting to support the Safe Haven proposal. Ann Houston, a health professional and a neighbor, told the audience that the low-demand structure was the only way to reach many people. She said that as a professional health-care provider, she has witnessed how a high-demand can act as an impediment to treatment.

“My experience with locked facilities is that people want to get out just because they are locked in,” said Houston. “That’s why I think that Safe Haven has the potential to be a very positive solution.”

Viola Carbo, a member of nearby Meade Episcopal Church, said that helping this population should be an important goal for the city. She said that they are often military veterans who have found themselves down on their luck and in need of help, but who are weary of agreeing to strict treatment plans.

“I came here to tell those who are narrow-minded that these people need help,” said Carbo. “You have to soften your heart.”

Councilman Rob Krupicka attended the meeting to lend his support for the project. After the forum was over, he said that he expected the forthcoming public hearing on the special-use permit to find a middle ground that everybody could be happy with.

“Like ever other SUP, it will have conditions,” said Krupicka. “I think that we will get to a solution that the community can support.”

Krupicka, a former member of the Community Service Board, recalled a similar uproar in Del Ray 10 years ago when the city government wanted to create a new group home. He remembered attended a particularly contentious meeting of the Del Ray Citizens Association in which many of the same concerns were expressed. But after the group home became operational, he said, neighbors became supportive of idea.

“Once they saw that it wasn’t going to pose a threat, those who opposed it changed their mind,” he said. “It’s now the cleanest house on the block with no trash, no late-night parties and no noise.”