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Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Supervisors approve expansion of shelter for women abuse victims



An illustration of the expansion project.

The Fairfax County Board of Supervisors agreed July 29 to allow Bethany House of Northern Virginia to expand a shelter for women victims of domestic abuse in the Barcroft Hills neighborhood.

The expansion plan has generated controversy in recent weeks, as some neighbors who oppose it put up signs on their front lawns identifying the address of the shelter, while Bethany House has tried to keep its location confidential to protect the residents.

Bethany House has operated a congregate living facility for women abuse victims and their children in a detached house since the mid-1990s. The applicant, Ken Fisher, president of the Bethany House board of directors, requested approval to add three bedrooms – for a total of seven – and six parking spaces. The 1,346-square foot addition would increase the shelter’s capacity from nine to 16 residents. A resident manager lives there, as well.

During the Board of Supervisors hearing, Mason Supervisor Penny Gross urged her colleagues to support the expansion. She said there hadn’t been any complaints about the shelter until the signs went up, noting “it was stunning to discover there were pent-up emotions about this application.”

Gross noted that the house across the street has seven bedrooms and is twice as big. She said additional conditions agreed to by Bethany House – including a contact person who can be reached 24/7 in case of problems – will go a long way toward addressing neighbors’ concerns.

Among the dozen or so people who spoke at the hearing, only three were against the expansion, although more opponents came to earlier meetings and wrote letters urging the county to deny the expansion – or at least impose stronger regulations.

Bethany Sutherland Jones, who lives near the shelter, asked the supervisors to delay approval until more conditions can be implemented and Bethany House can demonstrate “a change in behavior.”

She cited the need to maintain property values and a safe neighborhood, as well as several ongoing problems, such as trash accumulation, trespassing, failure to respond when people knock on the door, and failure to share information.

“Sixteen people in one house is an apartment building, not a home in a neighborhood,” said Karen McDaniel, who lives next to the shelter. She’s had numerous problems with the shelter residents – including people parking too close to her driveway, bumming cigarettes from a neighbor, and theft of a cell phone by a resident’s child – but didn’t call the police because she didn’t want to get them in trouble. “I feel like I’m being raped by Bethany House,” she said.

Another neighbor, Delbert Jones, said he doesn’t oppose the existing shelter, but doesn’t want it to be expanded “until Bethany House can repair its relationship with the neighbors.” He said the organization deliberately avoided community engagement and misrepresented its plans for expanding the shelter.

Lynn Strobel, the attorney representing Bethany House, conceded that the organization could have done a better job of reaching out to the community.

Rev. Sarah Scherschligt of Peace Lutheran Church on Lincolnia Road who bought a home a few blocks from the shelter a couple of years ago, spoke in favor of the expansion. “I don’t think it negatively affects our investment. We think it makes the neighborhood a better place to live,”she said.

“We all know someone who has experienced domestic violence,” Scherschligt said. “We are grateful such a place exists in our community.”

“This county is in dire need of temporary shelters for people who suffer from abuse,” said Bruce Langwiser, chair of the domestic violence prevention committee at Faith Communities in Action. He spoke about meeting a woman who couldn’t leave her abusive husband because she didn’t  have anywhere to go. This project is about “taking broken, shattered lives and rebuilding them,” he said.

Ken Fisher, speaking as a citizen rather than the applicant, said Bethany House has been successful in providing services to clients – such as counseling and financial education – so the vast majority are able to start a new life and resist going back to their abusers. “I hope the folks who oppose this see our clients need a touch of kindness and the strength that comes from being part of a community,” he said.

Ian Haskell, the only person who spoke in favor of the project at the hearing who actually lives within a block or two of the shelter, said he’s passed by it hundreds of times and didn’t know it was there. Supporting the expansion is the “right thing to do,” he said. “I want my neighborhood to be about the protection of the vulnerable.”

Several others who spoke in support of the expansion included former victims of domestic abuse and people who operate other shelter programs.

Amanda Tenorio, for example, a former Bethany House client who’d been “a prisoner in my own home,” said it’s important “to break down the judgments and stereotypes” about shelter residents.

Heather O’Malley of Doorways for Women and Families, said, “We all live in neighborhoods with abusers. Abuse is happening all the time; we just don’t see it.”

17 comments:

  1. “I feel like I’m being raped by Bethany House." Niiiiiiice. That kind of rhetoric will get you nowhere at all, Ms. McDaniel...

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    1. Unless you live next door and have 24 / 7 exposure, how would you know???

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    2. Because you would've moved out of the neighborhood years ago if it was that bad! You want a better community, start with your attitude!

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  2. This is vintage Penny Gross: Instead of venturing out into the affected neighborhood to discuss the matter with her constituents, she instead opts to hide out in the Mason Center and then feign ignorance about the obvious opposition to this proposal. Gross has never been effective at engaging her constituents. Her approach has increasingly been to promote the agenda of various interest groups. I believe that this tactic is predicated on her belief that she's a supervisor-for-life. I feel bad for the residents in the area surrounding the shelter because I doubt if potential home buyers would settle there given the option of living elsewhere. I realize that's certainly not a tactful thing to say, but shelters, half way houses and other government-supported communal living residences bear a stigma that's difficult to erase.

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    1. The article mentions that the shelter has been there since the mid-1990s, and people who live in the neighborhood, including some who have "settled there" didn't even know it was a shelter until this application.

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    2. Most of the funding this shelter receives is private donations, not government funding. While some tax dollars do go to support its operations, the taxes you pay pale in comparison of what is needed to help women and kids restore their dignity and self-reliance. Also, the home value argument doesn't work as homes have been bought and sold in this neighborhood all the while this shelter has been in operation.

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  3. Buy the house next door to Penny Gross and put them there. We don’t need apartment buildings our neighborhoods regardless of the occupants.

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    1. Didn't the BOS just float some completely unreasonable plan to address the intrusion of commercial activity in single family neighborhoods ( proposed group assembly zoning ordinance)? Increasing the number of occupants in this dwelling surely makes it less compatible in the single family neighborhood.

      While Ms. Gross did identify a home across the street with 7 bedrooms, she did not say how many occupants there were in that home.

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    2. This is a house not an apt building. I know families with more residents in a smaller home than this. Get real!

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  4. Perhaps a poor choice of words on Karen's part but understandable when emotions are running high. This is a neighborhood chosen by its residents because of the safe family oriented atmosphere. The fact that it has existed for so long with out much complaint seems to be out of the kindness of its neighbors. To double the size and occupancy and then say that no one has ever complained is taking advantage of that kindness. The house has not gone unnoticed by the residents of houses within the immediate surrounding area. They have tolerated the residents trespassing and additional traffic in the name of the good cause. No one is trying to abolish the shelter. They simply oppose the creation of a high occupancy building on a residential street. Especially one that has ties to violent people. These are just concerned families trying to maintain the atmosphere they all pay for.

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    1. That was a great response summing up people's concerns. We have a group home in our neighborhood and I put up with the extra traffic, speeding vans and the weekly freak outs by residents in home to be a good citizen. If they wanted to expand this place I would be very upset and angry and because all those issues would double/ triple.

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    2. Safety is a bogus argument - the people living in this home are the ones fleeing violent situations, not creating them. Abuse is in every neighborhood so don't think this house is any worse than where it's actually taking place because it isn't. When was the last time there was a safety incident involving the abuser showing up the house and creating a problem? NEVER!

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  5. A reasonable reflection. Sadly, the moral highroad folks believe their mission trumps being good neighbors.

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    1. If there hasn't been any complaints why would they think there's a problem? If neighbors who had legitimate issues brought them to the shelter's attention, then this could've been resolved long before now.

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  6. Single family neighborhoods are gross. So afraid of the cooties of poor people, of renters, of anyone who is not like you. These women ARE from families - they are victims of domestic abuse. What happened to them COULD happen to you. When it does you will glad for the high minded folks, and you be glad they put their mission first. Next time someone proposes ANYTHING that is objected to because it will "change the character of the SFH neighborhood" I will be for it. I am so tired of this tripe. Get over yourselves. You think you are protecting your precious kiddies? When they grow up they will move to hip places in the city and they will despise you.

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    1. You sound like a gross person who is despised by the people who have the misfortune to now you. So quick to judge others without putting yourself in the shoes of the people you are judging.

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    2. Since the location of this house has been potentially compromised, perhaps those who are judging those opposed to it will volunteer your neighborhoods as a new location for the shelter.

      This illustrates a consistent problem in Mason District. Most people are not against helping those less fortunate; they are against helping, when the help adversely affect others. You do not slight one group to help another. You need to find a better solution when this happens. Does this make finding a solution harder when you need to do this? Sure it does, but our elected officials should be able to handle this.

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