In communities across New Jersey, a new type of home is being built: the group home, which shelters people with disabilities, people trying to kick addictions or troubled teens. However, introducing such a home into a neighborhood is often marked by fear and resistance. One opening in Pennsauken, serves as a case in point.
Homes in the Collins Tract neighborhood are by and large huge and old, unique and well-kept. The house in question is painted a cheerful yellow, with white trim. It’s stood empty for five years, but that’s changing. It’s being renovated to serve as a group home, and it was the subject of a town meeting recently: which was at times questioning, and contentious.
“How come you chose this community?” questioned one neighbor at the meeting, who didn’t give his name. “This blue collar, tight-knit community, that you’re gonna come in and it’s going to weaken the community. There’s going to be people who the property values, I’m sure will decrease.”
“I can’t believe that the occupancy of our five kids would diminish property values more than the boarded-up home on the corner that no one necessarily wanted to buy or fix up, because it had been complete vandalized, and stripped,” responded Harry Marmorstein, C.E.O. of the Drenk Institute. Drenk is a non-profit, with a mission to help people with mental health issues. He said the kids would be five boys, ages 15-to-17.
“Many have have been traumatized, have emotional problems, and are being removed from their homes by a state authority,” he said.
So Drenk bought the house at Cove and Irving with the intent to turn it into a haven for troubled kids. Teens, having been removed from abusive and or neglectful homes, would stay between six and seven months.
“This particular one is designed to help kids get stabilized as quickly as possible, and either reunite them with the family, if it’s possible, or move them on to a more long-term residence, such as group home,” said Marmorstein. He said kids who move to the more permanent locations will stay there five, six or seven years.
Marmorstein says the kids coming to Pennsauken are largely immature. Some might have been involved with drugs, or have lived on the street.
Some neighbors question if the kids will always be viewed with suspicion. But Coralee Paige seems convinced the location is right. “I’m just a little disappointed that my community isn’t more accepting of a chance to help children, because they still are children,” she said.
This type of scenario is being played out in communities across New Jersey as institutionalization fades and people with disabilities are moved into communities, many of them into group homes. And the fact is, state and federal laws are behind institutions such as Drenk, which don’t have to announce their entrance into a neighborhood. That doesn’t sit well with neighbor John Rowan.
“If on that corner, if somebody wanted to come in and open up a strip club, we as neighbors would have law on our side to be able to prevent that. But in this case, ultimately, there’s no law that would allow us as neighbors, to protect our own property values?” he asked at the hearing. Pennsauken Mayor Rick Taylor confirmed that neighbors don’t have the power to block the group home.
Paul Hoyle is upset because neighbors weren’t notified. “Why were you afraid to come to us, and tell us what you wanted to do? We’re actually a very reasonable town, a reasonable neighborhood.”
Drenk’s Marmorstein responds: “Because in my experience over the last 30 years, before the state changed the law, every time that we went to a community to ask for permission to open, they said ‘no.’”
According to the New Jersey Department of Children and Families website, studies show, overwhelmingly, that these homes do not significantly impact property values. However, Diane Streichert, head of the Burlington-Camden Association of Realtors, says perception is everything. When the perception is there that this would be a problem, people will consider it a problem, whether it is or isn’t. That perception could narrow the field of prospective buyers.
Meantime, Marmorstein is trying to assuage fears, emphasizing that trained staff will be at the house at all times. “Actually, there’ll be two people awake, 24 hours a day, seven days a week–including holidays,” he said.
And inside the home, kids badly in need of structure and caring, will have the experience of getting up in the morning, having breakfast, off to school, and then, like any other kid, they’ll have to hit the books.
So, as the house on Cove road opens as a group home, Marmorstein makes a last plea to the neighborhood: “Kids deserve a place, kids deserve a chance, and it’s a good thing that we’re offering that for them.”