Mission founder questions buffer proposal

Jan. 21, 2013 @ 07:55 PM

The head of the Durham Rescue Mission has asked City Council to consider delaying a scheduled vote tonight on a new law that would bar group homes from opening close to each other.

Mission founder Ernie Mills told council members by email that he’s worried the 1,125-foot between-homes separation requirement has “the potential to adversely affect” the ministry and operations of his organization.

He said he’d like City Attorney Patrick Baker to weigh in on whether the requirement applies to the mission.

Mills cited the mission’s ownership of several houses along Morning Glory Avenue, Worth Street and Wall Street as the potential point of conflict because the mission uses them to house male clients.

“We own several homes side by side,” he said, adding that the houses are part of the mission’s campus and because of their proximity can be efficiently supervised by its staff.

He added that he’s “neither for [the ordinance change] nor against it” if it wouldn’t apply in the Durham Rescue Mission’s situation.

The proposed separation requirement has landed on the City Council’s agenda thanks to pressure from County Commissioner Ellen Reckhow and an assortment of North-East Central Durham neighborhood activists. The issue has been percolating for about a year.

Reckhow and other advocates say the lack of separation has allowed too many group homes, for people with various disabilities or substance-abuse problems, to set up shop in too small an area.

Activists don’t like a heavy concentration of group homes for fear it would undermine neighborhood revitalization efforts. Reckhow has also argued that it “defeats the purpose” of creating group homes in the first place, which is to make clients feel they’re not living in an institutional setting.

The impetus for the move didn’t appear to be the rescue mission, which has been in an expansion mode in recent years. Rather, it stemmed from complaints about start-up homes in other parts of North-East Central Durham.

The mission, a private homeless shelter at the corner of East Main Street and Alston Avenue, has already added one large new building and has plans for more.

It was unclear as of Monday whether city officials think the proposed ordinance will affect the mission. City Hall was closed for the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday. City/County Assistant Planning Director Pat Young couldn’t be reached for comment.

City law defines a group home as a facility that serves seven to 13 people who because of age, illness or disability require “personalized care or a supervised living arrangement [to] assure their safety and comfort.”

The proposed buffer would also apply to state-regulated “family care homes” that serve up to six people.