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New group homes stir their neighbors' fears

Wendy Campbell of Dunedin remembers well what she and her husband first thought when they learned a group home for people with mental retardation was coming to their neighborhood.

"We were frantically trying to figure out, was that allowed and could that be," she said last week.

It was and it is.

Using money from a federal grant, the Upper Pinellas Association for Retarded Citizens is building four new group homes, all in neighborhoods in north Pinellas County. The four will replace three older homes and serve the same number of developmentally disabled adults, giving them more space, said Steve Henken, UPARC's associate executive director.

"It's been an ambition of ours for the last three years to do this," he said. "We view it as an upgrade."

The homes are under construction or soon will be in Palm Harbor, Dunedin, Safety Harbor and Clearwater. Each is about 3,000 square feet on one-third-acre lots. They are being built in neighborhoods of $100,000-plus homes, which has some homeowners, like the Campbells, concerned.

"I have nothing against these people whatsoever," said one resident who called the Times last week. "But why put them in a family neighborhood?"

Henken said UPARC strives to integrate people with mental retardation into the community. They want the same things everyone else does, he said.

"They want to work," he said. "They want to recreate. They want to live in decent housing. I just ask that these people be given a chance."

He expects the new homes to be occupied by mid-November. Each home will house six adults, ranging from mildly to severely retarded. The homes will have 24-hour staffing.

UPARC is paying for the homes with a $1-million grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Several years ago, UPARC built a 25-unit apartment complex in Clearwater with a similar grant, Henken said.

The construction of the group homes is UPARC's biggest one-time undertaking. In its residential program, UPARC serves about 150 clients, from teenagers to people in their 80s. After the new homes open, Henken said, UPARC will have 18 group homes and one apartment complex throughout the county.

The last group home UPARC opened was in Largo this year. There, the agency bought a house that had been on the market for 10 months. That was its first new group home in four or five years, Henken said, adding that no more are planned.

"This is hopefully not going to be our last great hurrah, but the belt is getting tighter," he said.

UPARC's presence is becoming apparent at the new homes.

Some neighbors in Palm Harbor became alarmed and began putting up "for sale" signs when they learned UPARC was moving in. A man who called the Times because he feared for the safety of his 6-year-old daughter later said he did not want his name in the newspaper. He did not want to appear prejudiced, he said, and his neighbors were angry at him for bringing attention to their community.

Henken is used to that kind of reaction. UPARC constantly is battling an "ignorance factor," he said. The agency used to preface its moves into neighborhoods with public relations campaigns, Henken said, but it stopped doing that because they did not work.

He said recent changes in the law mean no rezoning is needed and neighbors do not need to be notified if group homes will have six or fewer residents. The new rules reflect a view in the mental health field that smaller is better, Henken said.

But UPARC is not trying to sneak in, he said.

"The only way for us to gain welcome to a community is to prove we're a good neighbor," Henken said. "That's what it takes."

In Dunedin, after some initial apprehension, UPARC is being accepted. Wendy Campbell called the agency about two years ago after she and her husband, Jay, learned from a surveyor that UPARC had bought a lot on their street.

"I think our biggest concern was what would that do to the neighborhood as far as property values," said Mrs. Campbell, who has two children, ages 6 and 4.

Discussions with Henken eased their minds. The group home residents keep strict schedules, he told them. Most of them work and use public transportation. On weekends, they spend their time at the Long Center in Clearwater.

Responding to another common fear, Henken said people with mental retardation do not tend to be aggressive.

The group home in the Campbells' neighborhood is not complete, but UPARC is participating in the community, Mrs. Campbell said. The agency has mowed the grass on its lot ever since she called Henken and asked him to, and UPARC pitched in financially to help paint the subdivision's wall.

"He's been very willing to do whatever it takes to make it work," Mrs. Campbell said about Henken.

Mrs. Campbell, who is a firefighter/paramedic for the city of Clearwater, said her family's views have changed since that anxious day two years ago.

"We were not thrilled," she said. "There's no doubt about it. Our hopes were that some nice Christian family with two small children like ours would move in.

"But I think it's going to be all right."