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Vacancy! Trenton Place Doors Open At Last

Published in the Dade County Sentinel, Trenton, GA, March 20, 2013
Vacancy! Trenton Place Doors Open At Last


After almost two years, Trenton Place, Dade’s VOA housing for the developmentally disabled, still stands half-empty because of a battle of bureaucracies. Now a truce has finally been reached among federal and state governments and the agencies that operate the facility, and the doors have been flung wide -- but nobody appears to be waiting outside. Officials are actively seeking eligible Dade residents.

By: Robin Ford Wallace, Reporter

This is a story about Trenton Place, the Volunteers of America (VOA) apartments built to house Dade’s developmentally disabled population. It starts out with a happy ending.


“It’s a positive. It’s a good thing. We’ve got a solution,” said Dr. Tom Ford, executive director of Lookout Mountain Community Services, the local nonprofit community services board that coordinates between mental health consumers, the Georgia Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities (DBHDD), and facilities such as Trenton Place. “The problem is, now we’ve got to find people to put in there.”

It was one sunny day last week, and Ford as well as Dave Burry, LMCS’s developmental disabilities director, had sat down with the Sentinel in their LaFayette office to announce glad tidings: State and federal agencies have finally sorted out the bureaucratic snarl that has kept Trenton Place sitting half-empty since it was completed in summer 2011.
That’s the good news. The bad news is, now that the barriers have been torn down, Trenton Place has found no takers still waiting outside for admittance. “We had them knocking at the door before and we couldn’t get them in,” said Burry. “I guess now they’re disgruntled with the whole process.”

Ford and Burry are anxious to announce the changes in policy that now allow them to fling wide those doors: “We’re looking for people,” said Ford.

Specifically, they are looking for local developmentally disabled adults, in need of residential services and eligible for Medicaid assistance, who are not institutionalized in state hospitals. To those who have family members meeting that description: “Call me,” says Burry. “I will get the referral immediately to my intake person and she will go out and make first contact with the family, and she’ll process the application and submit it and help the family with the whole process.” 

The telephone number at Lookout Mountain Community Services is (706) 638-5591, and Burry also furnished his cell phone number: (423) 503-6853.

He and Ford explained that the problem is not so much that there aren’t any takers for the vacant apartments at Trenton Place. Those are, in fact, legion: About 3,500 qualified DD individuals are on the waiting list for housing services statewide. But right now, at least, Ford and Burry have found none of those consumers in Dade.

“The apartments were basically built for this area, Dade County being a primary area because there was a strong advocacy group over there,” said Ford. “We have a number of individuals from Dade who are in our services, but they may not need residential care right now.”

His agency will give priority to Dade residents, said Ford, and after that to those from Walker, Catoosa and Chattooga, because those are the counties LMCS serves. But if no interested parties turn up locally, the agency will have no choice but to tenant the seven vacant apartments with applicants from further afield. “We don’t want them just sitting there,” said Ford.  “Nobody wants them empty.”

Indeed, the impasse at Trenton Place was discussed – and deplored – at the last meeting of the Dade County Commission on March 7. The Sentinel had first described it in articles beginning almost exactly a year ago, on March 14, 2012.

At that point, a grassroots effort to help an eminently eligible local woman move into Trenton Place had snowballed into a coalition of powerful advocates as family recruited business and religious figures, these recruited county officials, and those in turn enlisted state leaders. But this snowball of advocacy dead-ended with a thud against an immobile wall of bureaucracy. 

“It’s not like moving a mountain,” said Dade County Executive Chairman Ted Rumley at the time. “This has been like moving a mountain with about 10 freight trains on top of it.”

In 2005, at the behest of Dade citizens who had worked toward it for some years before, Lookout Mountain Community Services and VOA, a national nonprofit organization that provides programs for the DD population, among other targeted groups, began their coordination to build Trenton Place through a grant they obtained from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).

The complex contained 12 apartments plus a common area and an office staffed by VOA 24/7. The idea was to allow residents to live as independently as possible, but with such support as they might need for day-to-day life, including help with shopping and cooking as well as transportation to day programs.  Residents’ families agreed Trenton Place was a wonderful option for their loved ones.

But only five apartments were rented, because renting the sixth would have violated what all the players eventually began referring to as The Policy – Georgia Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disability Policy 02-601, which decreed that no more than 49 percent of units in such a facility could be devoted to the disabled, as a matter of avoiding segregation.

The Policy had come about in reaction to a U.S. Department of Justice lawsuit against Georgia a few years earlier. The Feds contended that Georgia was locking developmentally disabled individuals away in state hospitals when they would have been happier and healthier integrated into the broader community.

Georgia settled the lawsuit, then contended that its subsequent stricture on Trenton Place and other such facilities not to devote more than 49 percent of their units to DD tenants was necessary to comply with federal guidelines.

For the nonprofit agencies that built it, though, it was unclear whether Trenton Place could rent to anybody but DD if it were to honor its obligations to HUD, since the complex had been purpose-built for that population. 

So the apartments sat empty from month to month and year to year, and a Georgia DBHDD spokesman told the Sentinel that VOA and LMCS had only themselves to blame for that. They had made a “poor business decision,” said the spokesman, building segregated housing when the national trend for years had been toward incorporating DD into the general population. 

Meanwhile, the eminently eligible Dade resident who started the snowball rolling gave up and quietly moved into a smaller apartment in the mainstream complex where she had earlier lived with her mother.  Her family describes her as happy there and does not believe she’d consider relocating to Trenton Place.

Now, though, said LMCS’s Ford and Burry, she could: The tide has turned. Georgia DBHDD has a new commissioner, Frank Berry, who has cleaned house from top to bottom and is now working with the community service boards to get facilities like Trenton Place filled. “It’s a new day at the Department,” said Burry.

Since taking office in August, Commissioner Berry has met with HUD as well as DOJ and ironed out a compromise that is not official yet, but Ford has it spelled out in a letter forwarded to him by U.S. Representative Tom Graves, whose help in the matter he had solicited earlier.

HUD, said Ford, will still not allow anyone but DD individuals to rent at Trenton Place, since that is the population it was built for. DOJ, likewise, will not allow any DD individuals who have been institutionalized in state hospitals to rent at Trenton Place.

But, said Ford:  “It’s not as bad as it sounds.”

Actually, very few of the disabled individuals awaiting services in the northwest Georgia area have ever been institutionalized, he said. The vast majority, those who have been living at home with family, or in the community at large, are now eligible to apply at Trenton Place – and Ford and Burry are anxious to hear from them. “We would love people to see from the Dade County area,” said Burry.

Dade County Executive Chairman Rumley, asked for comment on these developments, clearly had sour memories lingering from last year. “I’ll believe it when I see it,” he replied.

Rumley said he had a couple of families in mind who need such services. “But I don’t like to get people built up because I’ve had them built up before, and then they pull the rug out from under them,” he said.

The Sentinel will continue reporting on this issue as it unfolds.

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