RIGHT OR WRONG, the folks in Tangletown probably sound like most people when they say they don't want a foster home for emotionally disturbed teens in their neighborhood. Early in the summer, the neighbors found out a foster program was going in at 5010 Stevens Ave.; by mid-July, the county pulled the plug on the $400,000 operation.
Some in the African American-oriented Exodus Community Development Co., which set up the program, mumble racism. Actually, the closing of Exodus's Per Ankh house probably had more to do with bad public relations; the program moved in without notifying its new neighbors. But on the part of the county and neighbors, who insist this isn't just another case of "not in my backyard," there seems to be an underlying feeling that group homes don't belong in nice neighborhoods.
Exodus got a Hennepin County grant to start the program after the county sent out a call for crisis respite care--a place for violent and severely emotionally disturbed (SED) teens to go for up to two weeks to cool off if things get too hot at home. The home would hold only six teens, and the nonprofit's track record was good--it already had a successful day-treatment program for SED kids at the Riverwest School. Per Ankh was its first try at overnight care.
Exodus purchased a $240,000 house in affluent Tangletown. But county officials say it didn't follow the usual, but not required, procedure of telling the neighbors and the county where it was setting up. Being up front, says Jill Alverson, a manager in the county's Children and Family Services department, usually gets a dialogue going and makes neighbors friendlier to group homes. Neighbors say they were told the house was bought for a reverend and his wife; it wasn't until someone saw blindfolded men being led into the garage--a trust-building exercise for staffers--that area residents realized Exodus was there. Neighbors say that when they asked Exodus administrators about the program, they were given inconsistent answers. A standoff ensued.
Finally, County Commissioner Mark Andrew and City Council member Dore Mead homed in on a couple of discomforting facts about Exodus: Per Ankh's co-director was Halisi Edwards Staten, who in a previous job at the state Department of Human Services was accused of channeling funds to a charity run by her husband, former state Rep. Randy Staten. Plus, Exodus's board of directors all resigned earlier this year over differences in direction and communication problems with CEO Art Tredwell, whom one described as "an egotist." Those issues caused the county enough concern that last month it yanked the home's contract.
Andrew, Mead, and some neighbors say they lacked faith in Exodus's ability to run the program. Nonetheless, there does seem to be some general objection that Exodus used a nice house for the program. The county and city prefer that such programs buy "problem properties" to refurbish, describing the result as getting twice as much bang for their buck. "And there are problem properties everywhere," Mead says, "whether it's an alley house that you can smell from two blocks away or a crackhouse or whatever. That's how you get the support of the community."
After Andrew was quoted in the Southwest Journal saying that Exodus should have moved into "a neighborhood where rehabilitation of property is needed," Pamela Hoopes, managing attorney at the Minnesota Disability Law Center, sent him a letter saying his statement "flies in the face of the Federal Fair Housing Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act, and the state's and county's policies that people with disabilities should live and receive services in the most integrated setting possible." If the County Board rejected Exodus based on neighbors' fears of the disturbed teens who would stay at Per Ankh, it broke the law, Hoopes charged. "The U.S. Department of Justice is particularly interested in pursuing cases against government entities and officials where the government entity funding the residential program stopped payment on the provider's contract due to neighborhood opposition," she wrote.
For now, anyway, the battle surrounding Per Ankh is closed. But not, it seems, without some permanent damage. Not only is the county disenchanted with Exodus, Andrew says, it may push for tighter laws governing all foster-care group homes. Meanwhile, Tredwell says Exodus has turned its attention back to its Riverwest program and a low-income housing project. The real losers, he says, are the SED teens--a disproportionate number of them black--who need Exodus's culturally specific program.
And if Tangletown thinks it got rid of an undesirable element, he says, think again: One of the first candidates for the program that was to open in Per Ankh lives just a few blocks from 5010 Stevens.
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