Five years ago, Christina Herrle and her husband Philip decided Greenlea Drive in Moon was the perfect place to raise their daughter.
The quiet suburban stretch of split-level, post-war houses is the kind of neighborhood where kids run freely from yard to yard and neighbors get together for summer barbeques, Herrle said.
It's also a neighborhood that now is lined in little green signs that read "Protect our children. Say NO to a Fairweather lodge."
Herrle and a number of other residents of the street said they are dismayed to learn that a group home for people with mental illness soon will open at 162 Greenlea Drive.
"It means I will no longer feel safe," Herrle said. She said she fears her family will feel it is necessary to take extra safety precautions when the home opens.
"Can you imagine having a surveillance camera on your house?" she said.
The single-family house at 162 Greenlea Drive, across the street from Herrle’s home, was purchased in October by Homestead-based Transitional Services, Inc., an organization that provides a range of services for people with intellectual and psychological disabilities.
CEO Sharon A. Alberts said the organization plans to open a Fairweather lodge on the residential street in coming months but is still making repairs to the home. Fairweather lodges are group home programs established throughout the country under the principle that people with severe mental illness flourish by living and working together, independent from hospitalization. Independently operated lodges exist in about a dozen states. Stairways Behavioral Health operates one on Eighth Street in Erie.
"Quite frankly, the state hospitals are closing," Alberts said. "[People with mental illness] can't all live in the city. In fact, I spoke with one of the neighbors this morning and told her to come over and visit when we open up. We'd really like to have a dialogue about the program."
Moon Planning Director Adam McGurk said the township earlier this week reviewed and approved an occupancy permit sought by Transitional Services, Inc., giving the organization the go-ahead to move into Greenlea Drive. Because what had been a single-family house now will be considered a group residence, township officials had to approve that use of the home for that purpose.
Now, Alberts said, Transitional Services will interview and screen candidates for the home. When it opens, four roommates will share the 2,000 square-foot dwelling. They’ll learn to live independently and to acclimate to the Moon community, she said.
“We don’t provide court-ordered treatment,” Alberts said. “And we screen and perform criminal background checks. The typical diagnosis for one of the residents could be anxiety, it could be depression or bipolar disorder or schizophrenia.”
Alberts said Fairweather homes typically are located in more urban areas, near readily accessible transportation and business. Greenlea Drive, she said, doesn’t fit the typical description of a Fairweather lodge neighborhood.
“The neighbors are going to say there’s no transportation [on the street],” she said. “But we will have at least one individual who can drive and who can transport people. And we have staff and vans who will also drive people to their employment.”
Alberts said intermittent supervision and guidance is provided, but no staff will live in the home. The organization is funded through grants and “funding from the county,” she said. Residents will be expected to find employment and pay rent.
“We provide housing, and we provide support,” Alberts said. “We find that the people we serve really do make progress. They engage in life.”
But residents said they worry that a lack of supervision poses a safety risk for children in the neighborhood.
“I understand they have a right to live here,” said Philip Herrle. “Everybody needs a chance. But is this really the place for them to live? Right here with all these children around? In the event that an incident happens, I want to know a person who I can contact directly about it.”
An Unwelcome Arrival
When Venus and Greg Thompson, along with a group of other Greenlea residents, spoke before the Moon Board of Supervisors earlier this month, they said they wanted to be clear: In their view, the addition of the Fairweather lodge to the street would forever change the residential neighborhood they love.
The Thompsons live next door to the soon-to-be group home. After being awakened by snowplows early on a recent morning, they began looking into who had bought the house at 162 Greenlea. The Thompsons, who have lived there for eight years, learned by searching Allegheny County property records that Transitional Services had purchased the home.
“It was done in secrecy,” Venus Thompson said. “We found out by looking into it ourselves.”
Residents on the street complained to township supervisors in near-unison: They’re worried their properties will be devalued by the proximity of the group home. They’re concerned it's not a good fit for their neighborhood. They say the wording of the township ordinance that permits it in the neighborhood is too vague. They fear for the safety of their kids around the Fairweather residents. By their own count, 31 young children live on the street.
They’ve written to newspapers, circulated a petition and contacted state Rep. Mark Mustio, Thompson said.
“We’ll sell,” she said. “It’s too much to have to monitor your neighbors all the time.”
William Cole said he normally hosts a neighborhood block party each summer, complete with a blow-up pool and waterslide.
“But this year I don’t know. I don’t know if parents will let their kids come over because we’re so close the [group home],” Cole said.
Alberts said she knows about the green signs lining the street. Although the lodge may not be welcome, she said, she hopes the house will prove to be a good home for its intended residents.
"I think it needs to be expected everytime you have people who are different from them living next to them," she said. "My pledge to them is that we will be be good neighbors."