WILKES-BARRE — Neighbors of a group home at 53 Johnson St. petitioned city officials last week to shut it down after unruly behavior from clients necessitated numerous police calls since it opened in October.
Several neighbors attended a city council meeting on July 13 to bring city officials “up to speed on what’s been going on” at what has become “a nuisance home, to us, at least,” said Johnson Street resident Chris Patte.
Monica Spishock, who lives next door to the home and acted as a spokesperson for the neighbors, said Beacon Keystone purchased and opened the home without giving them any notice, and there has been “significant disruption to the daily lives of people on Johnson Street.”
“There’s screaming, there’s fighting, there are threats and innumerable police visits that occur all hours of the day and night, and that includes this afternoon while I was teaching a 6-year-old. I had to shuttle them into my home for safety’s sake and call 911,” said Spishock, who teaches piano at her home.
A resident at 53 Johnson St. “has been allowed to be out on the street, stopping passing cars. There have been physical altercations with their workers. On Jan. 12, in a screaming fit that lasted well over an hour, the client was out on the sidewalk overheard yelling, ‘I will get a gun and shoot you all.’ I had to usher people into my house that day as well,” Spishock said.
She said repeated police and ambulance visits — sometimes more than once in a day — cause the street to be blocked off, which affects an already-challenging traffic pattern because the nearby Washington Street Bridge has been closed for the past decade.
Spishock said the company seems to rely on calling the police “as an alternative to having properly trained staff to deal with what seems to be a very difficult client” and “has established a pattern of shutting down the home for a reportable offense and then reopening it days later, and the cycle begins again.”
Spishock said she spoke with the Beacon Keystone director on June 26 and July 7, but it became clear to her that Keystone “has no intention of working with city officials or residents of Johnson Street and simply tends to stonewall.”
No representative from Beacon Keystone returned messages a reporter left at the company’s Pennsylvania office in Clarks Summit on Thursday.
Spishock said Councilman John Marconi has tried his best to help relay concerns to the administration, but still, nothing has been done. She said she emailed the zoning officer in May inquiring about zoning requirements and responsibilities for a group home and received no response. She presented a petition with signatures of 23 residents asking that the home be shut down.
“They shouldn’t have to live this way. No one should,” Marconi said, urging Mayor George Brown and his administration to find a solution.
Johnson Street resident Kim Woodrosky said she called city hall and was told the home received a rental inspection.
“The problem with that is that this is not a rental property. This should have been a zoning issue. You need to rezone a residential to commercial,” Woodrosky said, adding that the rental inspection should be revoked. “This is a business being run there and we don’t even know what they’re running.”
City Administrator Charles McCormick said the administration has been involved and he has responded to every communication from Marconi. He added that he was presented with a certificate from the state that permits the group home to operate.
“It is not a zoning issue because of a federal law and a federal court consent order that defines any property that had four (or less) unrelated adults living there, you cannot zone pursuant to a care facility,” McCormick said. “You cannot zone if they’re disabled, under the federal act.”
McCormick said he spoke with the director about the disruptive individual and asked “if they could go through the process of finding an alternative place for that person because they’re extremely disruptive to the neighborhood. … She told me, ‘Let me work through the system and see what I could do.’”
“So, I will follow up with that,” McCormick said. “But I do want the neighbors to understand … it is an extremely complicated legal problem.”
Councilman Bill Barrett noted that Beacon Keystone is a business … that is generating a profit and, in my opinion, federal regulation or not, they should still have to go through the zoning process. … They shouldn’t be able to hide under that umbrella,” he said, drawing agreement from fellow council members.
One community in Minnesota handled a similar situation by revoking rental licenses from two group home operators after police there cited residents with disruptive behavior on a few occasions, according to KSTP-TV.
In doing so, the City of New Hope “effectively evicted nearly ten individuals with diagnosed mental health disorders and other disabilities from assisted living facilities that are licensed and regulated by the state,” the TV station reported in December.
Advocacy groups for the disabled and intellectually challenged were upset with and concerned by the city’s action.
‘Not being served well’
“We believe all people with disabilities have the right to live in the community just as anyone else,” Lisa Tesler, executive director of the Harrisburg-based Pennsylvania Developmental Disabilities Council, said in a phone interview Friday.
Tesler said she viewed the video of the July 13 Wilkes-Barre City Council meeting online and acknowledged that there is definitely a problem at the Beacon Keystone home on Johnson Street.
“I heard the concerns of the neighbors with police and ambulance and disruption, and that’s concerning. But I was surprised there didn’t seem to be much concern for people with disabilities in the home,” Tesler said. “They clearly are not being served well if they need police and ambulance intervention” to the degree described.
Tesler said the goal should not be to remove a group home from a community, but to ensure the residents receive the support they need to live there.
“From what I heard, from my perspective, if there is that level of intervention required by police, the quality of services and support are not meeting the needs of the residents of the group home,” Tesler said.
Tesler said the PDDC is funding an initiative to enable people with disabilities to choose where they want to rent a home and whom — if anyone — they want to live with while providing necessary services to their home.