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It's Time a Wary Neighborhood Welcome the Newcomers

July 04, 1991|DOUG SMITH

The day escrow closed on the $395,000 house that she had just bought in northwest Glendale, Carole Jouroyan couldn't help dropping in for a look.

That's when a woman from the neighborhood took her aside to let her know where things stood.

"She introduced herself and immediately said, 'You know, we don't want you in this neighborhood,' " Jouroyan said.

Having known that she would receive no welcome on Alma Street, Jouroyan deflected the insult with practiced self-control.

"We're just continuing our lives as normally as we can," she said resolutely, recalling her reply.

It was a confrontation that Jouroyan had faced before and expects to face again. She is executive director of the Glendale Assn. for the Retarded. High on her mission today is finding homes for the retarded on unfriendly turf.

The facts behind her predicament are relatively simple.

Most of the 50 clients of the Glendale Assn. for the Retarded will outlive their parents, Jouroyan said. That's a relatively recent actuarial reality born of advances in medical treatment of the life-threatening complications that go with many mental disabilities.

That means that in addition to the social, recreational and vocational programs that the association has provided since the 1950s, it now needs to find long-term housing for clients whose parents will not always be able to care for them.

The first such enterprise was the opening, in 1985, of Hamilton House, a 10-bed group home in an apartment house.

With new state laws setting a maximum of six residents per group home--and providing automatic entree to residential zones--the association looked in Glendale's single-family neighborhoods for its next group home. The house on Alma Street was the best buy.

About 50 residents of Alma Street protested at a hearing when the Glendale Redevelopment Agency agreed to fund the purchase.

The glowering neighbors argued that the house would break the single-family zoning. They said it was a business not a home. They said their property values would plummet.

They avoided mention of the underlying topic--their feelings about the new neighbors whose identities, in fact, were not yet known. The six lucky residents had not yet been chosen from a waiting list of 21.

That was 18 months ago. With the remodeling at last completed, five of the Alma House residents moved in last month.

They are: Phyllis, the oldest, middle-aged and reserved; Tracy, mid-20s, sweet, bright smile; Charles, mid-20s, sly and humorous; Grady, about 30, garrulous and self-assured; Joey, about 20, curious, friendly, quick to give a hug. Two are brain-damaged; three have Down's syndrome.

Their cook, chauffeur, schedule-keeper and companion is live-in manager Jamie Blecker. Also in her mid-20s, she is firm, steady and patient.

I joined the group for dinner last week as a guest of Jouroyan's. When I arrived, the residents were relaxing after their day at the association's Self-Aid Workshop nearby.

Blecker cooked hot dogs, corn and French fries. The residents served themselves buffet-style from the kitchen counter.

Dinner conversation covered bowling, the barbecue that Charles' father was going to bring and preparations for a dance.

"I don't know what dress to wear," Tracy told Jouroyan two or three times. "Will you help me choose?"

Only Phyllis, the latest arrival, said nothing, or next to nothing. During dinner, Jouroyan asked her if she was happy.

"Yes," she said.

All carried their own plates to the sink, where Joey and Charles, according to the day's schedule, rinsed and stacked them in the dishwasher.

After dinner, there was a good deal of commotion for 15 minutes as everyone got ready to hop in the van to head for Club Maple, the weekly bingo game at Maple Park on the southeast side of town.

Joey was ready first, with basketball circled in his arm. He hugged Grady and told him that he was going to show him how to play.

It took some exertion on Blecker's part, and quite a few last-minute trips inside the house, to get the whole group from the front porch into the white van.

She drove them to the park and dropped them off. They would take the Dial-a-Ride home.

There was a high level of excitement in the smallest chore at Alma House: No cross words were exchanged, but many voices were raised in the spontaneous collaborations that developed around every activity.

For most Alma House residents, this will be the routine until they turn 59, when state law requires their transfer to a different kind of home.

Perhaps before they all move on, relations with the neighborhood will improve.

So far, only one neighbor has visited the home in friendship, Jouroyan said. Still, that's a measurable gain.

Personally, I must confess that if I had lived near Alma House, I would have feared its arrival. But it was impossible to sustain that anxiety after spending an hour there.

It would be good therapy for all concerned if, after Charles' father brings the barbecue, everyone on Alma Street dropped in for a back-yard bash to get to know their new neighbors better.

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