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A PLACE OF THEIR OWN
FOR THOSE LIVING IN GROUP HOMES, SUPPORT AND CAMARADERIE OPEN THE DOOR TO INDEPENDENCE

Until 29 years ago, those with developmental disabilities had two choices: live at home or move to an institution.

Then the first group home opened.

In these new settings, strangers bonded into families and residents could do what most others take for granted -- live in a house, walk to a restaurant, talk to a neighbor.

Since then, People Inc. has opened 60 more such homes in Erie County for 475 people; Niagara County's Opportunities Unlimited operates 19 homes for 132 residents.

And there are more to come.

Under a five-year project called NYS-Cares (New York State Creating Alternatives in Residential Environments & Services), $25 million in state funds and $25 million in federal funds will buy and renovate existing houses or build new ones.

In the next three years, 30 are planned for Erie County. Niagara County plans another four by March. It will ease a waiting list of about 1,100 people with developmental disabilities that was caused by a years-long building freeze.

Since that first house opened, some things have changed. Most notably: Now, bigger isn't considered better. While 10 to 15 people live in some of the well-established houses, the newest are designed for four to six residents, allowing for private bedrooms and a quieter atmosphere.

Also, the practice of preparing a house and then filling it with whoever was on the waiting list has given way to IRAs (Individual Residential Alternative), which take residents' interests and needs into account.

"Our philosophy is that this is their home, not the staff's home, not People Inc.'s -- it's their home," said Alan Jankowski, who supervises a home on Buffalo's LeBrun Road.

"You feel that you've achieved success when they say they are going home and they don't mean Mom and Dad's house, they mean LeBrun."

One thing hasn't changed: There's nearly always a protest when a site is proposed and people raise concerns about a change in the neighborhood environment, property values, traffic, trash, safety.

For all the fuss, national studies show that property prices are not devalued, that most homes are inconspicuous and that attitudes generally become more positive in time. A 1993 study provided by the University of California, for one, shows that the socioeconomic status of a neighborhood doesn't change after the establishment of a group home and that most houses were found better-maintained than other properties.

"Once we are in, we have very few issues with neighbors," said Rhonda Frederick of People Inc., which operates a 24-hour telephone line to answer concerns. "We are good neighbors."

One person who has worked in the field for 20 years said she thinks that expressed concerns cover up the unexpressed.

"My feeling is that people live their lives in fear of becoming dependent," said the woman, who asked not to be named. "And we go into serious denial. By keeping people with dependencies out of view, it gives us a sense of security."

While much has been written and said about the neighborhood protests, little attention has been paid to what goes on inside these houses and what happens when neighbors get acquainted.

Visits to community residences -- the sites where the residents have the highest level of personal skills -- in Wheatfield, South Buffalo, East Aurora, LeBrun Road and Williamsville, provide a glimpse at life inside the residences that many call home.

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