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Group Home to Expand Despite Neighborhood Concerns

A nonprofit will be allowed to house six adults with mental illnesses in the Alcova Heights neighborhood, despite objections from neighbors.

Since April, a single-family house at 3704 2nd Street S. has been operating as a low-barrier group home for four (4) adults with mental illnesses transitioning from homelessness. New Hope Housing, the Alexandria-based nonprofit that operates the dormitory, has been seeking a use permit to increase the maximum number of adults housed at the dormitory to six (6).

The use permit request drew criticism from neighbors at Saturday’s Arlington County Board meeting.

Residents told the Board that there was a lack of supervision and communication from the nonprofit for the first 4-5 months that the group home — called Susan’s Place — was in operation. Several neighbors described residents of the shelter cursing and spitting at them as they walked by, a resident who sat in a broken chair in the front yard talking to himself until midnight, and other disturbances. Residents and neighborhood representatives said neighbors were not notified that the group home would be opening, and didn’t know who to contact with concerns.

New Hope Housing Executive Director Pamela Michell told the Board that the problems went uncorrected for several months because a key staff member was on an extended personal leave, working on a master’s degree in social work. She said the organization typically doesn’t give neighbors a heads up when they open a new group home because of fair housing laws, but called that a mistake in retrospect.

“There was a lack of communication,” she admitted. “We did not come and talk to the neighborhood. That was obviously a mistake.”

Still, Michell said the organization was not aware of any problems during the first few months the group home was open. She said a staff person was on-site during that time, and disputed the assertion of neighbors that they made a reasonable effort to voice concerns about resident behavior.

“Frankly, no one knocked on our door and said there was a concern,” Michell said. “Since the staff person didn’t observe it and since nobody complained, we didn’t know there was something that needed to be addressed.”

In a letter to county staff, the Alcova Heights Citizens Association said they only obtained information about New Hope Housing when an attorney for the organization contacted them seeking support for expansion of the group home. The first meeting between neighbors and New Hope staff took place on Aug. 14.

“This appears to be a lapse in management,” County Board member Jay Fisette said to Michell. “You guys did something wrong.”

Fisette and other Board members were swayed, however, by accounts that problems with the group home have largely been corrected since that meeting. They were also supportive of conditions for the use permit agreed to by New Hope Housing, including 24-hour on-site supervision, a neighborhood liaison who can be reached by phone by residents, an administrative review after 5 months and a County Board review in 9 months.

“Because it has improved… I think this is going to work,” Fisette said. “Six people, five people or four doesn’t really matter. It’s the management issues around it.”

Fisette also noted that many of the residents who expressed concerns about the group home also expressed support for New Hope’s overall mission to help the homeless.

The Board approved the use permit by a 5-0 vote.

Board member Chris Zimmerman echoed Board Chair Mary Hynes in commending the “vital function in our community” that nonprofits like New Hope play in helping to combat homelessness.

Photo via Google Maps

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