The U.S. Department of Justice has filed a complaint against a southern California city for allegedly discriminating against residents with disabilities by using zoning laws and aggressive enforcement measures that restrict where group homes can operate. The city of San Jacinto is in violation of both the Fair Housing Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) because, says the DOJ’s suit, under its zoning laws, group homes are not permitted anywhere in the city unless they have received a special permit to operate in areas that have been zoned for multi-family housing.
Although I live on the opposite side of the country, I am watching the government’s lawsuit closely because a group home in a community setting is precisely the kind of living situation we hope our teenage son Charlie, who’s autistic, will live in some day.
To be totally honest, I’d really just prefer to have Charlie always live with us for since his life, and that of my husband Jim Fisher and me, are so intertwined that we like to say we’re the “tight team o’ three.” But, as neither Jim nor I are going to live forever or at least as long as Charlie’s lifespan, we have to think now about where he will live when he’s an adult. Much depends on what level of support Charlie might need in the future, but we would like very much for him to reside in a community among “everybody else,” rather than isolated in an institution.
San Jacinto Law Enforcement Conducted Sweeps of Group Homes
Back in October of 2008, new zoning regulations concerning the operation of group homes came into law in San Jacinto. In November of that year, city and county officials, including armed and uniformed police officers and sheriff’s deputies, appeared unannounced at 19 group homes. Residents, some of whom have schizophrenia and other mental disabilities, were interrogated from a “prepared questionnaire that included intrusive questions targeted to persons with mental disabilities” including questions about their conditions, treatment and the types of government benefits they received.
Four of the homes investigated were determined not to be group homes, according to city and county officials. Some of the group homes have been shut down and those that remain in operation have been repeatedly visited up to this year and fined $100-1000 a day, says the Press-Enterprise.
Community care facilities, which are licensed by the state to provide both treatment and housing for individuals with disabilities, are allowed anywhere in San Jacinto. The group homes targeted were not those that were not required to register with the state, had six or fewer residents and did not provide medical treatment; with the “special permit,” these group homes could operate in areas zoned for multifamily housing and apartment buildings. On these grounds, City Attorney Jeff Ballinger says that San Jacinto was making “reasonable accommodation” as required by federal law and claimed that efforts to ask the government for clarification about what this meant were not responded to.
“People With Disabilities… Must Be Given the Opportunity Live in Our Community”
But as Mary Prem, executive director of the Housing Equality Law Project in San Francisco, tells the Press-Enterprise, “with few exceptions, municipalities have to allow group homes for individuals with disabilities within their boundaries.” Noting that discrimination complaints have been filed against other California cities regarding group homes, she says that none of the municipalities have successfully defended their actions in court.
The Obama administration is seeking a court order that would prevent San Jacinto from “enforcing its laws in a way that unlawfully discriminates on the basis of disability, and prohibiting the city from failing to make reasonable accommodations.” It is also seeking monetary and compensatory damages on behalf of the group home residents who were subjected to the raids.
As Andre Birotte Jr., U.S. Attorney for the Central District of California, says, “Under the law, people with disabilities, including mental disabilities, must be given the opportunity to live in our community, free from discriminatory efforts to exclude them.”
I am very hopeful that the government is successful in its suit against San Jacinto. The last thing I’d want is for Charlie to be living in a group home and be subject to something like the law enforcement sweeps that the San Jacinto home’s residents were subjected to. Charlie would feel that he had done something wrong when he most certainly hadn’t — when it was not he who was acting in violation of any rights or regulations.
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