First of two parts
When Little City Foundation's Shawn Jeffers came aboard as executive director in 2003, he quickly targeted one of the nonprofit agency's group homes in Palatine.
A facility located on a four-lane road with scarce parking and an overabundance of costly maintenance issues was hardly his vision for the ideal setup, and he wanted it closed.
The staff's pleas to reconsider eventually halted the plan, as did thoughts of the burdensome and sometimes contentious process Little City would face in trying to relocate.
"We have a long and reputable history, so we're usually able to garner enough support," Jeffers said. "But there are times when there's a great deal of uproar."
That uproar -- from neighbors concerned about their property values and who will be living next door, or from municipal officials who cite a number of nuisance and life safety issues -- has kept some group homes from opening, despite having federal law on their side.
Though you'd be hard-pressed to pick out many of the hundreds of nondescript group homes throughout the Chicago suburbs quietly going about their business, there's always an exception.
A Daily Herald survey of emergency calls in a variety of suburbs found the most extreme case came in Naperville, where a single group home serving troubled youths generated more than 700 calls for emergency services over a 2½-year period, the vast majority dealing with runaways, missing persons and related follow-ups.
Most of the time, however, the public doesn't even realize that small groups of people with mental illness, developmental disabilities, behavioral issues, addiction, brain injuries or no permanent home are among their neighbors. And if they do, the relationships are usually harmonious.
For agencies such as Palatine-based Little City Foundation, a half-century-old organization that serves people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, a solid reputation starts with physical upkeep.
"We want our homes to reflect the best of that neighborhood, so we use resources to make sure they don't stand out as an eyesore," Jeffers said. "We're the bearers of that image, of that brand, and people will attribute our shortcomings to all people with disabilities."
Making sure to blend in is just one component of a larger, ongoing public relations campaign to educate the public about group homes, what they do, who they house and their impact -- or lack thereof -- on a neighborhood.
Evolution of homes
As the trend toward more specialized care continues, it's a safe bet that the proliferation of group homes, many of which have waiting lists, will continue in the years to come.
That's true of Clearbrook, another nonprofit that serves people with disabilities.
President Carl La Mell said the Arlington Heights-based organization has been opening one or two community integrated living arrangements, or residential homes known as CILAs, each year. It currently runs 30 such facilities in 11 communities including Buffalo Grove, Hanover Park, Rolling Meadows and Schaumburg.
La Mell is considered one of the pioneers behind the CILA movement in the mid-'80s. It was the next step in the deinstitutionalization of people with disabilities from large state institutions to more normal and humane neighborhood settings, a process that began more than a decade earlier.
An earlier movement to deinstitutionalize mentally ill people began in the mid-'50s with the availability of antipsychotic medications.
According to the Kaiser Commission on Medicaid and the Uninsured, the resident population of state public mental hospitals fell from 559,000 to 154,000 between 1955 and 1980.
Even more group homes sprang up after the Fair Housing Act of 1988, which made people with disabilities a federally protected class. It sought to provide more housing options within single-family zoning districts, and put the law on the side of agencies wanting to open group homes.
And in 2011, a federal settlement in the Ligas lawsuit called for another 3,000 Illinoisans with developmental and intellectual disabilities to move into community-based housing of their choice over a six-year period.
"People deserve to live in the community like you and I do," La Mell said. "No one should have 150 roommates their whole life."
Jeffers said group homes are more specialized than ever, often with a 24-hour staff, individualized care plans, case managers, psychiatrists and therapists. That's a change from group homes' early years, when a "house parent" simply lived with residents.
"You used to have a house parent model and volunteers supporting it, but that requires tons of training," Jeffers said. "There are liability concerns with an unpaid labor force, and we can't run that risk. Now, you see a very structured and regimented group home that meets the demands of the complexity of the people we serve."
Neighbors push back
Nearly 40 years after Bob Adams spent time in Vietnam as a Navy hospital corpsman providing emergency care to Marines, he set out to help other veterans in dire circumstances.
He thought neighbors would embrace the Midwest Shelter for Homeless Veterans and its mission, but when Winfield residents nervous for their young children resisted, he and his colleague were forced to find a new site on West Street in Wheaton.
"People didn't know us or what we'd do or how," Adams said. "I think it was fear of the unknown."
The shelter, which has been open five years now, houses five homeless vets and arranges for them to receive medical and psychological treatment, case management, employment training, legal help and education during their six- to nine-month stay. The organization has a staff on-site 24 hours a day and boasts a 78 percent success rate.
Adams, the president, said it was crucial to find a location where the men could easily immerse themselves in the community. The shelter is in a residential area close to a main business district.
"We couldn't have these men in the middle of nowhere away from the public," Adams said. "It would have worked against them."
Over time, the organization built a positive reputation, which was key to getting the city's go-ahead to open a second facility, this one an affordable living unit. The newly opened facility can accommodate six veterans, including both a disabled and female veteran.
Neurorestorative, a national residential rehabilitation provider based in Carbondale, faced similar push-back earlier this year when it proposed opening a group home on Deer Avenue in Palatine.
Neighbors heard the facility might house patients recovering from gunshot wounds, and quickly mobilized to petition the village to make its regulations more restrictive. They didn't succeed in compelling officials to require background checks of prospective tenants, but Palatine did approve measures such as requiring all parking to be on-site -- and off the street -- and lowering the maximum number of residents allowed.
The Neurorestorative home, which was remodeled to accommodate four individuals with brain injuries and other neurological injuries and illnesses, opened this fall, according to Chris Williamson, regional vice president for the central division.
Most group homes, though, open without anyone noticing.
When neighbors do become vocal, it's usually to complain about parking, traffic and noise. Officials say those complaints typically taper off as agencies respond to and remedy concerns.
The vast majority of group homes don't cause a significant spike in police or fire calls, either. Despite several exceptions, records obtained under the Freedom of Information Act show only a minimal burden on resources in most cases.
At a WINGS group home in Palatine, for instance, which serves women who were victims of domestic violence, there's been just one call in the last two years. It was for a fire alarm.
Another common perception is that group homes bring down property values.
One local study of seven DuPage County neighborhoods by the Wisconsin-based Land Economics journal concluded that home values did decline for properties within sight or within 200 feet of a new group home at the time it was announced. However, the study found evidence of some group homes being placed in depressed areas, likely due to budget constraints, where property values were already dropping.
Clearbrook's La Mell points to several other studies that find opening a supportive housing development doesn't have a statistically significant impact on properties either way.
"All the studies prior to the housing crash showed no impact on real estate values," he said.
• Coming Monday: Most group homes go almost unnoticed, but some generate a surprisingly high number of calls to emergency services. This story will look at call volume, the reasons for it, and what group home operators are doing to address the issue.