Group home 'fears' faced Wednesday, August 17, 2005
David McLaughlin 508-626-4338 Metrowest Daily News
FRAMINGHAM -- A month after bowing out of a summit on social services, Advocates Inc. met with selectmen last night, apologizing for its absence and vowing to meet "anytime, any place" to discuss its work.

Officials from the local agency, which serves people with mental illnesses and other disabilities, spent much of the meeting tackling questions about group homes as the board pushed for answers about how it notifies neighbors and locates sites.

Advocates CEO Bill Taylor said the nonprofit agency moves quickly to notify residents and hold open houses once its closes a deal on a property.  The longer it waits to connect with neighbors, he said, the faster their "fears (become) ingrained."

"Our experience is that fears get worse and worse until people get the chance to meet their neighbors," he said.

Residents have trained a spotlight on Framingham's social service providers and their tax-exempt group homes following news that the South Middlesex Opportunity Council plans to move a residential program into a Winter Street nursing home.

Founded 30 years ago, Advocates serves 196 people in residential programs in Framingham, where it owns 13 properties and leases 21.  Its homes are spread across MetroWest and beyond, though about a third of its residential programs are located in Framingham.

Town Meeting member William LaBarge of Precinct 16 credited Advocates with spreading out its properties and not dumping "an excessive burden on the residents of Framingham."  Critics of Framingham's social service providers have held that the town has become home to an inordinate number of such services.

"There are clients that live in all those other communities," LaBarge said.

Once Advocates secures a state contract to serve a group of people, Taylor said, the agency looks for an affordable home near the clients and in a quiet neighborhood close to stores and other services.

Selectman Charlie Sisitsky questioned how the agency could get around local zoning laws even with the protection of federal housing laws behind it.  But Taylor countered that its projects are not large enough to trigger local zoning laws.

Taylor cited a Marlborough housing project Advocates developed for 20 people in which the agency went to the Zoning Board of Appeals for approval, though its group homes are much smaller.

Federal laws and court decisions, he continued, have consistently protected the housing rights of people with disabilities and prohibit mandatory notification to neighbors.  But Advocates, Taylor insisted, is not looking for a legal fight.

"We're not interested in going to court.  We're interested in working with the town," he said.

Advocates skipped a July meeting hosted by selectmen that was billed as a social services summit.  Advocates, SMOC, and Wayside Youth and Family Network were all invited, but only officials from the Salvation Army showed up.

Taylor said at the time that he wanted to meet with his board of directors.  Last night, he apologized for offending anyone by not attending.

"Anytime, any place, we'd be happy to talk about what we do," he said.

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