Since 2001 Zumbro Houses Inc. has operated modest homes for individuals ages 15 through 19. These youth haven’t been able to live independently due to a lack of independent living opportunities along with some of their own emotional or behavioral issues.Chris Onken, founder and president of Zumbro House has developed 14 Twin Cities locations as well as several out-of-state homes for developmental disabled youth. The homes, at all of their locations, have generated little attention until now. That changed when the housing provider tried to open two new homes in Centerville this summer. Anoka County Social Services has had a good relationship with Zumbro Houses for years and initially gave its okay to purchase and develop two group homes in Centerville, in southwestern Anoka County.
Anoka County already has approximately 100 foster homes that house people with developmental disabilities. County social services officials had asked Zumbro House to develop a couple of group homes in the area for county families whose sons who had grown up and needed on independent living environment. Because the homes are recognized as single-family dwellings, Zumbro House had no legal obligation to make the neighbors aware of their plans for the homes. The change in home ownership would be treated like the sale of any home to any new owner where the neighbors or city councils would not receive notification. After much controversy erupted about the home, Zumbro House dropped plans to develop a home in Centerville for the four developmentally disabled youth.
That decision was made after an Aug. 14 neighborhood meeting held across the street from the intended group home, where 125 residents attended opposing the home. Many spoke out against the plan due to their concerns about safety of the neighborhood if the home opened there. Meanwhile, Zumbro House officials and the families of the teenage boys tried to figure what to do. One boy has been living in a group home in Mankato. His parents were only able to visit every other month and had been looking forward to him moving closer to their family home, Onken said, to Star Tribune reporter Lora Pabst.
In interviews with Access Press and other media, Onken said, the planned homes had already been vandalized. He feared for the safety of the young men that would be moving into the new location Onken also said it would be difficult to find another foster care provider that’s seen anything like this before. “This is an affluent community and we were able to get into a foreclosure house at a very good price.
It would have allowed us to move into a city where we couldn’t normally have located.” He assured the neighbors that the residents that would be moving into the Zumbro House would not be sexual offenders, and agreed on that stipulation in the contract.
Onken claimed the neighbors reaction was “discriminatory” and that Zumbro House would not take any legal action to the situation even after putting thousands of dollars into developing the home. What has complicated the issue is one county commissioner’s behavior in the wake of the outcry over the Centerville home. Anoka County Commissioner Rhonda Sivarajah has applauded the Centerville neighborhood for their efforts in keeping the Zumbro group home out. On a blog (www.nozumbrohouse. com) Sivarajah stated “Without concerned citizens in this neighborhood who were willing to pay attention and alert me and other elected officials as to what was happening, this situation could have resulted in a very different outcome”
She also thanked other public officials for their efforts in a blog statement. Sivarajah went as far as using Margaret Mead’s famous quote “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”
Sivarajah may have spoken out without regard for the consequences. The Disability Law Center is investigating whether public officials can make “discriminatory opinion” without violating state or federal fair housing laws and whether any type of action should be taken against Sivarajah.
In a column on the controversy, Star Tribune columnist Gail Rosenblum said that a better Mead quote would be “The solution to adult problems tomorrow depends in large measure upon how our children grow up today.” The youth who would be housed at Zumbro’s two Centerville facilities may be able to live in another location in Anoka County after all. Anoka County Community Action Program (ACCAP), a nonprofit organization, has agreed to buy one of the houses. ACCAP officials said that Anoka County had asked ACCAP if they could purchase the house because Anoka County felt some responsibility for the unforeseen outcome to the group homes. Locations for the new homes haven’t been announced.
Everyone involved apparently just wants to move on and forget about the Centerville controversy while the parents of the young men are delighted that their sons will be moving closer and into an environment that is more welcoming.