State efforts to establish a group home for adults with mental or physical disabilities in Nokay Lake Township were suspended Wednesday after neighbors protested the location of the home at an informational meeting Tuesday night.
The decision by the Minnesota Department of Human Services (DHS) to put off a decision on the group home site until as late as Aug. 8, came as a bit of a surprise to Rep. John Ward, DFL-Brainerd and Kathy Stevens, a township supervisor who runs a day care at an adjoining property.
“Once an agency makes up its mind something’s going to happen, something’s going to happen,” was how Ward described the usual process in state government.
“I’m still holding my breath until Aug. 8,” Stevens said.
“It’s a step forward. I’ve worked with the DHS for 17 years and I’ve never seen them step back on anything.”
A DHS official said in an email said the agency heard the concerns expressed by the community and will re-evaluate alternative solutions.
“Over the next two weeks the department will engage in additional discussions to clarify specific community concerns which will help determine viable alternatives,” Amy Dellwo, DHS legislative director, wrote.
DHS officials expect to conclude their evaluation and release their course of action by Aug. 8.
At Tuesday’s meeting, the DHS facilitator, Roger A. Deneen, director of State Operated Community Services, said he had been unaware a day care was next to the group home and said he would recommend to the DHS commissioner that the decision to move into the Nokay Lake site be rescinded.
“I thought Roger was very honest and forthright,” Ward said. “I understand the need for group homes, especially in our area, where people who need help could get help. I’m supportive of group homes. We need every job we can get in this area.
“I told them (DHS officials) flat out I really hoped they look for alternatives in our area.”
Ward said a level of concern had been raised because Crow Wing County officials weren’t getting answers about the home. He said he had been told that steel doors and plexiglass had been installed at the site of the Nokay Lake Group Home. The lawmaker said the state had invested money in the building but he did not know how much.
Noting his background as a former special education teacher, Ward said group homes were a needed service. He said serving people with physical and mental disabilities was important to him.
“That’s why I fought so darn hard to keep the state hospital, for these purposes,” he said.
Ward said he strongly suggested that DHS include the community residents, whether it’s in Nokay Lake Township or another location, in any decision.
Stevens, who strongly opposed the location of the home next to her day care, said she was hopeful they’d find another site.
“We’d just be right in their back yard.”
In addition to the proximity of the day care, opponents of the Nokay Lake site also cited the facility’s distance from police, fire and ambulance services, its isolation from the rest of the community and security concerns.