Not a house … a home

By ELISA D. KELLER, Herald Staff Writer

STANHOPE — On Canfield Road in Stanhope, there’s a five-bedroom ranch style house. The living room sports a sizable movie collection and an 80-gallon fish tank. Each bedroom is decorated with knick-knacks and posters. The kitchen’s refrigerator is covered with photos and drawings, and a propane grill sits out on the back deck.

It looks as if an average family could live here.

And though the house was built specifically for people with developmental disabilities, it is a family-oriented home, which is just the way SCARC’s Chief Executive Officer Dr. Richard Lecher likes it.

All together, SCARC has 17 residential group homes in Sussex County, though not all of them were personally designed by the organization. However, thanks to a recently acquired $1,000,000 grant from HUD, the Department of Housing and Urban Development, SCARC is on its way to constructing two additional houses in Lafayette and Stillwater.

The Stanhope home, which is entirely wheelchair accessible and currently houses five wheelchair-bound residents, has become the model for those new homes.

Lecher recently went over the house structure with representatives from the State’s Department of Human Services and Monarch Housing Associates, who helped SCARC apply for the HUD grant, pointing out the changes they intend to make in the new buildings.

“Once we built the house and we lived in it for five or six years, we realized that there were some things we wish we’d done differently. That’s why we tore apart the bedroom entrances and redid them,” said Lecher, noting that the original door jams

were too narrow to push a bed through in a fire drill.

The new homes will also feature a larger laundry room where residents can learn to use washing machines, more centrally located fire exits, and wheelchair accessible automatic doors with built-in sensors.

“All of this is exciting, but it’s even more exciting because we’re celebrating our 50th year,” noted Lecher, adding that the group will be celebrating their anniversary at events throughout the year.

Though SCARC was started in 1957 by a small group of parents of children with disabilities, over the last 50 years it has become the largest such organization in Sussex County. However, the demand for group housing is such that SCARC, and its sister organizations throughout the state, is struggling to keep up.

“There’s about 8,000 people on the waiting list in New Jersey,” said Lecher. “Maybe three or four months before we open, we’ll start selecting people (to live in the new homes.) We always give preference to Sussex County people. We have an allegiance to the local people.”

According to Lecher, disabled people are often placed in foster homes, nursing homes, or institutions if they don’t have a support group at home. Though this may be the only option for many, facilities aimed at caring for the sick or elderly have a hard time encouraging developmentally disabled people to improve, as they are not trained or equipped to do so.

SCARC’s group homes emphasize education and rehabilitation, giving each resident specific goals to accomplish each day, such as physical exercise, activities to stimulate the memory, and social interaction with family and friends, all in a protective, individualized environment.

The State is doing its part to encourage these kinds of facilities, counting them as low-income housing in order to fulfill a township’s COAH, or Council on Affordable Housing, requirements. And in fact, when Lecher wrote letters asking county towns to donate land for the new SCARC group homes, he received several immediate responses.

“The municipalities particularly like the group home model because it doesn’t impact the school budget. We keep our properties very nice looking so they don’t become a blight, and we also oversee the house so it doesn’t deteriorate,” he said.

“(SCARC) helps municipalities meet their affordable housing quotas under the COAH program, so that’s important.”

And because the developmentally disabled are considered especially difficult to house affordably, each resident counts for two COAH credits, making SCARC a very desirable presence in any town. Though Lafayette already has a SCARC home, they were the first the volunteer land for a second residence, thanks in part to that positive experience.

Stillwater’s mayor, Alfred Fuoco, believes SCARC will also be a good fit for his municipality. “The township’s responsibility is to build the low income housing. We had a number of people show up at our (town) meeting — people who have been beneficiaries of SCARC — and they spoke very highly of them.”

“The township has a need, and SCARC has a need,” Fuoco added. “It really is a great benefit to both.”

Lecher is inclined to agree, noting that he has a list of townships waiting to house a SCARC project in the future.