By Michèle De Meglio
A group home for mentally challenged adults may open in Bensonhurst. So what’s the big deal? After listening to a handful of passionate locals voice their opposition to the residence for more than one hour, that was the sentiment expressed by two community members who said there is no reason to complain. Mary Placanica, who lives on Lake Street, said that the residents of a similar group home on her block are great neighbors. “There has never been a problem at all,” she said at a public forum to discuss the new home, which was hosted by the Gravesend/Bensonhurst Quality of Life Committee. “They are not a disruption to the neighborhood.” When he led a parish across the street from a group home for 17 years, Monsignor David Cassato, now the pastor of St. Athanasius Church, said, “It became a beautiful experience.” “There was never any problem,” he said. With such positive testimonials, what is causing all the opposition to this latest group home in Bensonhurst? Most likely, it’s misgivings about the residents who will be living in the home. Being created by Program Development Services, which already operates 54 group homes in Brooklyn, the residence on West 7th Street between Avenues O and P would house five mentally retarded adults. That means they are “slow,” explained Richard Murray, assistant executive director of Program Development Services – and not mentally ill, as some residents seemingly believe. At the forum, a handful of neighborhood residents expressed concern that the five adults in the home would possess violent tendencies and would attack their neighbors. However, that is a characteristic of people who are mentally ill – not mentally retarded, Murray explained. “This particular residence is governed by the state Office of Mental Retardation. This is not an office governing people with mental illness. It’s important to make that distinction,” agreed Assemblymember William Colton. Actually, the adults who will live in the home pose no threat to Bensonhurst residents, Murray said. They will receive round-the-clock supervision by direct care workers, even when they are asleep. “There will usually be two or three [workers] depending on the activities being scheduled in the house,” Murray said. “We have staff awake overnight for the safety of the residents.” When the adults leave the house to head to work, day programs or just to see a movie, they will travel via an ambulette and will be accompanied by direct care workers. On the slim possibility that one of the adults sneaks out of the residence unsupervised, “the danger will be to them, not someone else,” Murray said. Community residents were also worried that the presence of a group home for mentally retarded adults would lower the value of their properties. “When I sell my house, I don’t want to lose value on my house,” said Maureen Demaine. That will probably not be the case though, Murray said. “Studies have shown that the values of homes on the same block [as group homes] do not go down,” he said. To support his statement, he cited another Program Development Services residence on East 19th Street between Avenues S and T. With the knowledge that a group home exists on the block, residents are still investing in nearby properties, he said. “We’ve been there for many years,” he said. “People just bought the house next to us and did a tremendous renovation.” One of the reasons why the agency’s group homes do not lower the value of properties in a neighborhood, Murray said, is because, “we keep our homes looking very good.” That entails keeping the exterior of the residence in tiptop shape. Placanica also said that the group home on her block is in good condition. “There’s no broken windows…they sweep,” she said. In fact, “It’s better than any home on our block.” With the façades of Program Development Services’ dwellings kept attractive and 24/7 supervision being provided, the West 7th Street home might not stand out, Colton said. “If there’s proper supervision, you might not even know that there’s a group home for mentally retarded people on the block. It will look like any other home,” he said. Hoping to ease residents’ concerns about the conditions at group homes, Murray invited locals to tour other residences in the area. (There is only one other Program Development Services group home near the West 7th Street project. It is located on Bay 23rd Street between Bath Avenue and Rutherford Place.) To inquire about scheduling a tour, contact Program Development Services at 718-256-2212.