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Group Therapy

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Group Homeboy: Political consultant Roger Lee's rebound into sobriety has energized his campaign for group-home operators.

Photo by Christopher Gardner

After years of neglect by the state, the group-home system stands in a shambles of poor enforcement and disarray, leaving the locals to duke it out

By Eric Johnson

THE NEIGHBORS thought it was a crack house. With a dozen people living there at once, there seemed to be a constant stream of people coming and going. Faces changed month to month. Finally, someone called San Jose police, who referred the caller to the city's zoning code enforcement team.

This house, located where downtown San Jose merges with the Naglee Park neighborhood, isn't a crack house. In fact, it's a halfway house for people trying to escape drugs, an unlicensed group home. The city's code enforcement team decided that it's a "legal nonconforming use" in the single-family neighborhood. For now.

Some of the neighbors are trying to be understanding. Others are infuriated.

Joan Gallo, San Jose's city attorney, has been working for two years on a law to regulate up to 50 group homes located within the city. The city's efforts have been spurred on by complaints from some

Naglee Park residents--and people in many of the city's older neighborhoods--for more than a decade.

Gallo and her team have come up with a pair of land-use ordinances that could dramatically affect the future of these communities and hundreds of people who are disabled, mentally ill or recovering from addictions.

Some 700 group-home residents packed a meeting of the San Jose Planning Commission two weeks ago to demand that the city back off its plans.

A young recovering alcoholic named Aaron Burks said he'd have a hard time staying clean outside the structure of a so-called Sober Living Environment. "AA meetings just last a couple of hours," Burks said, "and then you're back on the streets."

Mary Williams, representing an alliance of businesses that run group homes, read letters from several developmentally disabled adults. One, written by a man who identified himself simply as Richard, summed up the fears of many disabled people in group homes:

"I just disappear in the streets, sleeping in a back yard or under a bridge," Richard wrote. "This home is the center of my life. Don't take it away."

Gallo says that most of these people have nothing to worry about and that the proposed legislation will actually help the disabled community.

"Under the Group Home Ordinance, there is no way that a [land] use which is now legal would become illegal," she says. There are only two ways in which the new ordinances are more restrictive, Gallo says: They disallow homes for court-referred residents (which she calls "quasi-penal facilities") in single-family neighborhoods, and they limit group homes to six residents.

Statistics about current homes are sketchy, owing to the fact that they exist in a regulatory limbo. Most house more than 10 people and operate on the assumption that they'll be "grandfathered" into any new zoning arrangement--or at least continue to be ignored. Gallo denies that the city plans to increase enforcement efforts, but that is clearly what the operators fear.

The paper trail leading directly to the two current group-home ordinances dates back to February 1994, to a memo from a City Council committee asking for changes to the municipal code. Beyond that, the track branches off toward two federal laws--the Fair Housing Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act.

These two federal laws are mentioned in every memo between the City Council and the city attorney's office; Gallo says the group-home ordinances are primarily designed to bring the city into compliance with the two progressive pieces of federal legislation.

Brian Doyle, a deputy city attorney who has worked closely with Gallo on the case, can't comprehend why this fact has been overlooked.

"It's bizarre that what is essentially a liberalization of our zoning code is being portrayed as a step back," Doyle says.

Gallo and Doyle point to the current municipal code, which states that "no residential care or residential service ... may be provided" in areas zoned for single families--a prohibition that will be eliminated under the new ordinance.

The attorneys also point to a section of the ordinance which creates, for the first time, a "reasonable accommodation" process, allowing people who operate group homes to apply for exemptions to the law.

"In my view, this would be extraordinarily helpful to people with disabilities," Gallo says.

Roger Lee, the star political consultant (and recovering crack addict) who is running the campaign to kill the ordinances, insists that they would force the city's group homes to shut down, and that hundreds of powerless people would end up on the street or in prison.

Having spent 28 days in a treatment facility and eight months in a Sober Living Environment following his much-publicized arrest for selling rock cocaine in 1994, Lee is passionate about the subject. "I question very seriously whether I would have made it [without the program]," he says.

"You have to understand that people with drug and alcohol problems, people who are mentally ill or disabled, need to learn how to function in normal society," he says. "That's why these people need to be in a normal neighborhood."

Lee, who served as Willie Brown's chief of staff in the state Assembly, and whose political savvy helped get three San Jose mayors elected--including Susan Hammer--has been joined by Sandra Escobar, who worked the downtown business beat for the San Jose Redevelopment Agency for nine years, and Larry Carr, a longtime aide to former U.S. Rep. Norm Mineta.

Ordinance supporters say Lee's passion and power are being augmented by money from group-home operators.

"There seems to be a perception that preservation of the status quo is good for someone," attorney Doyle says. "I suspect that it's good for the people making money on the margins--running operations where 12 or 15 people are living in one home. Just do the math."

Lee scoffs at the idea, adding that when he decided to put together a coalition to protect the homes, he went to the care providers for assistance.

"I figured at $100 a month per home, I could put together a campaign, but they couldn't even come up with that."

Lee--who, despite a recent operation, displays his trademark energetic style--seems frustrated by the whole issue.

"The whole way the city is addressing this issue is absolutely improper," Lee says. "They present it as an issue about facilities--buildings. But this is about people. They're trying to address a social issue as though it was a land-use issue."

About that, Lee gets no argument from Doyle, who lays ultimate responsibility for the problem at the feet of the state.

"They've created a referral system to keep people out of prison, but there's very little oversight," Doyle says. "Nobody in the city is suggesting that this problem should be dealt with in prison. We're just trying to decide where these people should be in a reasonable urban environment."

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From the May 22-28, 1997 issue of Metro

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