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Banned From Speaking

House Bill 5637 targets prejudice against group homes for people with mental illnesses

By DANIEL D'AMBROSIO, Hartford Advocate Staff Writer

April 24, 2008

A bill intended to help state officials site group homes for people with mental disabilities or addiction problems originally banned members of Hartford's neighborhood revitalization zone committees grassroots organizations commonly known as NRZs from even commenting on proposed homes.

House Bill 5637, introduced by Rep. Art Feltman, D-Hartford and Sen. Eric Coleman, D-Bloomfield, is intended to "level the playing field," for group homes, according to Feltman, who said the homes are often vehemently opposed by locals.

Under the terms of the bill, city and town officials would have to treat group homes for 12 or fewer mentally retarded people, or people receiving treatment for mental health or addiction issues, the same as they treat any other multiple-family housing.

"It also applies to zoning," Feltman said. "Right now many of the suburban towns have zoning rules that make it very difficult to site supportive housing in their borders. We also prevent discrimination by these towns by saying [supportive housing] must be treated the same as any other multiple-family housing."

But a clause in the original bill prohibited NRZ members from "commenting on any proposal for a community residence, child care residential facility or halfway house in a single family dwelling or multifamily building." Howls of outrage among the community activists who form the backbone of the NRZs apparently led to the offending clause being dropped in a subsequent working draft of the bill.

"First of all this is America. How are you going to tell me I can't speak about something I have a problem with?" said Bernadine Silvers, co-chair of Hartford 2000, a nonprofit organization representing the city's 14 NRZs. "Second of all you're talking about my neighborhood. How dare you tell me I can't have any input into something that may or may not negatively affect my community?"

Jim Siemianowski, spokesman for the Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services, declined to comment on HB5637, calling the bill a "delicate matter" that's currently being negotiated.

The DMHAS serves about 90,000 people yearly on a budget of just over $600 million, with four psychiatric hospitals around the state, the largest being Connecticut Valley Hospital in Middletown with about 600 patients, according to Siemianowski. There are also about 230 beds for psychiatric patients and 1,550 beds for patients with substance abuse problems in group homes concentrated in Hartford, New Haven and Bridgeport.

The state Department of Developmental Services, which serves mentally retarded people, could not be reached for comment.

Silvers' co-chair on Hartford 2000, Joe Barber, said Feltman showed he was tone-deaf toward his Hartford constituents by singling out NRZs in the bill for exclusion from the approval process for group homes.

"It seemed like Representative Feltman was starting off with the assumption that NRZs and no other body would automatically be opposed to [group homes], which I found insulting and a completely false premise," said Barber.

While Feltman has dropped the clause banning NRZs from commenting on proposed group homes, he still prevails upon them to treat those homes the same as any other "residential structure." The working draft bill also drops halfway houses from consideration, focusing only on community residences for 12 or fewer people with mental retardation, mental health or addiction issues.

"The current draft would say the NRZs are perfectly free to talk but can't discriminate against [group homes] in neighborhood plans," said Feltman. "They have to treat supportive housing for people with mental disabilities the same as any other multiple-family housing."

That won't be an issue, according to Barber.

"Our problem didn't have anything to do with the types of facilities," he said. "We try to stay away from that issue because I don't think there would be unanimity in the room. The thing everyone agreed on and the reason [the bill] came up was this stuff about the NRZs."

Silvers said HB5637 would have been a stronger bill if Feltman had tried to work with the NRZs rather than trying to shut them out.

"Nobody wants to be outside of the process, particularly people who have helped develop their communities," Silvers said. "We aren't known as people who don't try to work together. Why would you want to close us out?"

But Feltman said he has personally been involved in an effort to locate a 10-unit group home for the Board of Housing in Hartford that has been stymied by two different NRZs. He declined to identify which ones they are.

"I don't want to go there, we're in a pissing match now," said Feltman.

The problem, says Feltman, is the misperception that people with mental disabilities are violent and that their illnesses are untreatable.

"The truth is that in 2008 mental illness is eminently treatable," Feltman said. "Around the corner from me there's a former rest home that's now multiple family housing for people with mental health issues. It's quiet as can be. They get on the bus in the morning, go to work and come back. You couldn't tell [it's a group home] unless you knew that's the nature of the building."

Feltman lives on Broadview Terrace.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Advocate.
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