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How a group home in the neighbourhood can make almost everyone happy

Toronto councillor Doug Ford, who was widely criticized for saying that a group home for developmentally disabled youth had ‘ruined’ an Etobicoke neighbourhood.

Mark Blinch/The Globe and Mail

It's a classic not-in-my-backyard dispute: A conflict arises when neighbours complain about some aspect of living near a group home. But what about the right of developmentally disabled youth to be part of a community? With the right strategies in place, group homes can engage with the community, ensure everyone is happy where they are and give clients a chance to learn and grow.

The most recent controversy

Earlier this week, controversy erupted when Toronto councillor Doug Ford suggested that developmentally disabled youth in a group home had "ruined" an Etobicoke neighbourhood. After a backlash from members of the public and other politicians, Ford told The Globe, "It's not the fault of the youth that's in there, it's the system's fault. We need to find a proper location that they have the freedom to do what they do and the help that they need." He argued that these kids should be housed in a bigger facility in a less residential area, and in the face of ongoing criticism he alleged there had been reports of break-ins, that youth wandered up the sides of people's homes, that he was just doing what any councillor would do in standing up for their community.

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The rebuttal

Cay and Jim Shedden's son John lived in a similar group home, near their house in Scarborough, until his death last year at 51. Prior to the group home, the Sheddens – while searching for a home for John – had seen at least one abusive situation for another similarly disabled child at a rural institution (the girl, who was banging her head on the floor, was tied to a post in the basement). "It makes me mad because it's so wrong," said Cay Shedden of the Etobicoke situation. "What would we have done if the people in this area had had that kind of an attitude?"

Garry Pruden, chief executive officer of Community Living Toronto, which runs more than 50 group homes across the city, said, "We depend on our elected representatives to demonstrate leadership and help ensure everyone has a rightful place." Councillor Ford's comments, he said, "didn't meet that standard."

Representatives from Griffin Centre, the Etobicoke group home in dispute, rejected Councillor Ford's accusations. They're preparing a fact sheet and an open house to get to know the neighbours. "This is one of five homes we run and we work closely with our neighbours to address any questions or concerns when and if they arise," spokeswoman Catia Valenti wrote in an e-mail. Her organization plans to continue to work with Councillor Ford's office and neighbours to build positive relationships.

How times have (and haven't) changed

Decades ago it wasn't just negative comments being thrown around – at the opening of the Scarborough group home for John Shedden and other intellectually disabled people, disgruntled neighbours threw tomatoes. "They'd come up with the old argument that our property values are going to go down," Jim Shedden recalled. The Sheddens were disappointed to hear similar thoughts from residents protesting the Etobicoke home.

Creating harmony

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To overcome discomfort with the unfamiliar in a neighbourhood, Pruden said his organization invites community members to holiday parties and open houses, and introduces itself to local police and emergency-response units in case they're called to a home. If there are ever concerns, Pruden said the organization responds quickly. Once, when neighbours complained to a city councillor about garbage on the sidewalk, Community Living Toronto cleaned up the mess without argument, despite the fact that it appeared to have been left by people in parked cars.

A right to fit in?

"We really need to have a large menu of services that are available for people who are not exactly like the mainstream of young people," said Dr. Miriam Kaufman, head of adolescent medicine at SickKids Hospital. And, as long as they're staffed with well-trained and well-paid employees, group homes within the community can also benefit residents. "It's somebody's human right to not be put somewhere far away from people and only dealing with people who are paid to deal with you," she said. "A group home could be a stepping stone for somebody."

A client's perspective

Mark Miller learned valuable skills – from cooking to cleaning up afterward – from staff while living in a Community Living Toronto group home for people with intellectual disabilities. It helped him transition to a downtown apartment on his own last year. "It feels great living on my own," he said. "I get peace and quiet at night."

Miller works at a coffee shop in Community Living Toronto's Spadina Avenue office and a grocery store near Chester subway station, getting around on his moped. While living at the group home, he helped staff plan a trip to San Francisco. Now, he's saving up money and planning his own trip to New York. "I'm going to go to Union Station and find out the prices for the tickets," he said. "I'm very proud of myself."

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