Jilted Ward 4 Residents Aim to Make DYRS Group Homes A Campaign Issue
Because of nearby drug dealers, Ward 4 resident Melissa Quick doesn't let her daughter hang out in front of their Petworth home. Now, she's worries that their backyard won't be safe either. Quick thinks they could build an addition over the back of the house; her husband wants to get a Doberman pinscher.
The Quicks and dozens of their neighbors are worried about the same thing: a Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services group home that's set to open this week next to the Quicks at 1345 Taylor St. NW, just across the street from Powell Elementary School. Now, with the group home's operator refusing to negotiate with them and the District government citing fair housing law as a reason for its own inability to decide the home's location, the Taylor Street neighbors hope to make group homes across the city an issue in the final month of the mayoral primary.
The neighbors, who don't have a name for their group, insists that this isn't the District's usual NIMBY-ism, looks to contrary aside. There's the proximity to the elementary school, and the drug dealers. Then there's what residents say is a concentration of other social services in the neighborhood. It's a fight puts the residents, many of whom claim they want to help troubled youth in DYRS, at odds with efforts to approve the agency, one with a history of treating its charges so poorly that the agency is under a court-monitored consent decree.
The neighbors (wearing stickers that said "Safety FIRST!"), DYRS director Neil Stanley, and Allieu Kamara from group home operator Life Deeds met Monday at the Petworth library for a discussion led by Ward 4 Councilmember and mayoral hopeful Muriel Bowser. The neighbors brought worries about group homes and GPS monitoring from a PoPville blog post and longtime DYRS watcher Washington Post columnist Colby King.
They also had a proposed voluntary agreement which would include restrictions on the kinds of DYRS wards who could be placed in the group home, a curfew earlier than the proposed 9 p.m., and a promise that the group home's five residents wouldn't enter or leave the property from its back entrance, the closest one to Powell Elementary.
The neighbors were especially worried about the possibility of youth charged with sex offenses staying at the facility. While Stanley says few DYRS youth with sex offense records are assigned to group homes—Bowser, taking a break from the campaign circuit to play peacemaker, called that issue a "red herring"—the neighbors' proposed voluntary agreement would restrict them from the property anyway.
"I don't want there to be the narrative that's spun out of here that DYRS has all these sex offenders," Stanley told the audience Monday.
Both Stanley and Kamara promise that the facility will be safe and regularly monitored by DYRS, and will also have 24-hour adult supervision. Unluckily for the neighbors, though, neither of them were interested in negotiating the voluntary agreement. A Thursday open house at the group home didn't produce an agreement, either. (DYRS didn't respond to requests for comment).
“I lost complete faith in everybody with a title," Quick says of the elected officials they've asked for help, including Bowser (although Bowser's meeting organizing did lead one woman in the audience to promise to vote for her on April 1).
Bowser declined to comment to LL about the group home's seeming inevitability. Legally, though, she may be out of options. After Bowser inquired last year about the possibility of using a bill to determine where the homes go, the District's Office of the Attorney General warned that any legislation would probably violate fair housing laws, opening the District to "substantial legal concerns."
Mayoral spokesman Pedro Ribeiro echoes Nathan's response—after the city's Office of Contracting and Procurement selects a group home operator, the District can't decide where the home actually goes, according to Ribeiro.
All of that isn't enough for the people who live around Taylor Street, who don't see why the voluntary agreement requirements would break housing laws. Their next step is organizing people who live near other DYRS group homes and trying to win commitments from mayoral hopefuls on the issue. And of course, there's the voluntary agreement. Quick figures she'd have an easier time pressuring a new restaurant or bar than the group home.
"How can this city be so willing to jump through hoops and do that around liquor, but you won’t do that for children you claim you want to help?" Quick says.
Photo by Darrow Montgomery