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Votes

Safe Haven Approved

After more than a year of delay, City Council members approve apartments for homeless residents.

Although he had a successful career as a hair stylist for 38 years, Joseph Lloyd, 57, has found himself in the midst of a crisis. About 10 years ago, he recalled Saturday during a public hearing at City Hall, he fell in with the wrong crowd and became dependent on alcohol, eventually becoming homeless and in need of help — sleeping on park benches, in parking garages and dark alleyways. Although he admits that he needs help, he said doesn’t want to follow a long list of rules and regulations. And he doesn’t deny the possibility that he might suffer from mental illness. That’s why he came to a City Council public hearing wearing a lime green tag that exclaimed “Safe Haven Supporter.”

“I’ve been homeless for 11 years,” Lloyd said while waiting for the public comments period to begin. “So that’s why I’m here. I’m hoping that Safe Haven will be my last, best hope.”

After months of debate — and a lawsuit brought by neighbors who opposed the project — Safe Haven received the unanimous support of City Council. In 2005, neighbor Craig Miller brought a lawsuit charging that the city government gave the project an incorrect zoning designation to avoid the public hearing. After Circuit Court Judge Lisa Kemler agreed that the zoning designation needed to be changed, the Alexandria Community Services Board applied for a special-use permit. Two community meetings were held and two public hearings scheduled at the planning commission and before City Council. After more than a year of waiting, opponents of the project got their day at City Hall — although they were outnumbered by more than five to one by supporters to the apartment complex for homeless individuals with mental illness.

“In hindsight, I think that going through the special-use permit process would have been a better way to go about doing this,” said Vice Mayor Andrew Macdonald. “I’m sorry that we didn’t do that up front.”

Councilman Paul Smedberg agreed that the project deserved a public hearing regardless of zoning issues.

“I hope that in the future we are not afraid of going through this process,” said Smedberg. “I learned a lot from it, and I think we all did.”

Mary Riley, chairman of the Community Services Board, who was present at Saturday's hearing, disagreed.

"We don't hear people asking for public hearings when an apartment building for 12 non-disabled individuals is being considered," Riley said. "There can't be special rules or special public hearings because the residents have mental illness. Federal Fair Housing law is clear on this."

She also objected to the idea that the Community Services Board was afraid of a public hearing.

"No one was afraid of having an open process," she said. "The record clearly indicates that the CSB has communicated with neighbors and the community since the very beginning of this project and actually went out of its way to open up the process well beyond what was required. "

<b>THE PUBLIC HEARING</b> on Safe Haven lasted for more than three hours, as a steady stream of supporters extolled the project and opponents expressed concern over neighborhood safety, property values and compatibility with the neighborhood. Carol Layer, who heads the city’s Extended Care Services, gave City Council members an overview of the program and countered arguments of opponents. She said that neighbors couldn’t be involved in the screening process for residents because of confidentiality laws and professional ethics. And although many neighbors wanted the Community Services Board to institute a curfew, Layer explained that residents will be expected to be in the building between 11 p.m. and 7 a.m. — a time that she said will be “quiet hours” at Safe Haven.

“Our record of serving over 700 people in the past 10 years in 63 different sites across the city demonstrates that we are responsible and responsive neighbors,” said Layer, a division director with the Department of Mental Health, Mental Retardation and Substance Abuse. “Neighbors of the project have voiced their fears that the presence of the Safe Haven will diminish the values of neighboring properties. In fact, we are aware of considerable research that finds that special needs housing does not have a negative impact on property values.”

When Miller’s lawsuit was making its way through circuit court, he presented a real-estate appraiser that testified during the trial that Safe Haven would decrease property values of nearby homes — a key determination in giving him “standing” to bring the suit. After hearing Miller’s expert witness, Michael Campagna, the judge declined to hear the city’s expert witness who was prepared to present a contradictory opinion. Although Oakleigh Thorne did not testify during last year’s trial, he was able to participate in Saturday’s public hearing.

“We looked at homes that were adjacent to facilities and compared them to similar homes that were not,” said Thorne. “We found no diminution in value.”

<b>THE SAFE HAVEN</b> apartments will be located in a building that was originally constructed as a firehouse sometime between 1896 and 1902. Its current exterior — featuring three large rounded windows — reflects a 1930s-era renovation when the building became the city’s juvenile and domestic-relations court. From the early 1980s to 2004, the building served as a day program known as the Clubhouse for people recovering from mental illness. Because the city already owned the property and it was near mental health services, the Community Service Board determined that the 115 North Patrick Street location was ideal for the Safe Haven apartments.

“Our experience is that trying to find property in Alexandria is very difficult,” said Dr. Michael Gilmore, executive director of the Department of Mental Health, Mental Retardation and Substance Abuse. “And we are required to disburse these properties proportionately throughout Alexandria.”

Critics of the proposal said that they were skeptical of the city’s assessment that their property values would not be hurt by the project, citing the difference of opinion between Miller’s assessor and the city’s assessor. They said one of their major concerns is that many of the residents at Safe Haven will have drug addictions that will have a negative influence in their neighborhood.

“Our neighborhood has the right to know exactly how many substance abusers to expect,” Miller told City Council members, adding that he would like to see the Safe Haven program moved to a location closer to the new police station. “It only takes one incident to shatter a life.”

But City Council members, entrusted with the final say in the matter, sided with those whose lives have already been shattered — those with mental illnesses that prevent them from receiving service from homeless shelters or other Community Services Board residential facilities. After the three-hour public hearing, Councilman Ludwig Gaines told a story from his childhood about a visit to New York City in which he observed people stepping over a homeless man in seeming disregard.

“We have an obligation not to step over those who are less fortunate,” said Gaines. “It warms my heart to know that we have satisfied the legal requirement and the moral requirement.”