Group home prepares for first residents in Holyoke

  • Bonnie O’Donnell, director for Mental Health Association’s GRIT Holyoke program, pauses in the dining room where residents can eat “family style.” O’Donnell was giving a tour of the group home on Yale Street on Thursday. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Flower decorations, a gift from supporters in Boston, line the upstairs railing at the group home on Yale Street in Holyoke. Cordero Crenshaw, program supervisor for the home, is in the background. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • A handicapped-accessible bedroom on the first floor of MHA's GRIT program home on Yale Street in Holyoke. Photographed on Thursday, April 1, 2021. —STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • MHA's GRIT Holyoke program home on Yale Street. Photographed on Thursday, April 1, 2021. —STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Blue signs opposing MHA’s GRIT Holyoke program group home on Yale Street are placed along the abutting property lines of the Tudor-style home. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • From left, program supervisor Cordero Crenshaw, program director Bonnie O'Donnell, and clinical director Kim Fernald, sit under a gallery of LGBTQ+ pioneers in the living room of MHA's GRIT Holyoke program home on Thursday, April 1, 2021. —STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Bonnie O’Donnell, director for Mental Health Association’s GRIT Holyoke program, talks about the group home Thursday. GRIT stands for Grow, Reimagine, Inspire, Transform. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • A bedroom on the second floor of MHA's GRIT program home on Yale Street in Holyoke. Photographed on Thursday, April 1, 2021. —STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Opposing signs line the properties next to MHA's GRIT Holyoke program group home on Yale Street on Thursday, April 1, 2021. —STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • A gallery of LGBTQ+ pioneers decorates one living room wall at MHA's GRIT Holyoke program home. Photographed on Thursday, April 1, 2021. —STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Opposing signs line the properties next to MHA's GRIT Holyoke program group home on Yale Street on Thursday, April 1, 2021. —STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

Staff Writer
Published: 4/4/2021 8:41:05 PM

HOLYOKE — The creation of a 16-bedroom drug treatment group home continues to move forward at 11 Yale St., where the first resident will move in next week, amid continued opposition from some residents. 

The Springfield nonprofit Mental Health Association, which is running the home, confirmed Thursday that in the coming weeks it will be welcoming its first six residents to the residential rehabilitation services program, known as MHA GRIT. The program is tailored specifically for those in the LBGTQ population who struggle with addiction and a co-occurring mental health diagnosis.

“This is their home,” program director Bonnie O’Donnell said Thursday during a tour of the Tudor-style estate in the Highland Park neighborhood. She and other staffers were gathered in a comfortable living room at the front of the house, looking at a wall filled with photos of LGBTQ icons: Audre Lorde, James Baldwin, Laverne Cox and Harvey Milk, for example. “This isn’t a medical facility,” she said. 

O’Donnell’s use of the words “medical facility” was likely in reference to opposition from some city residents, including a group of abutters who filed a lawsuit in Massachusetts Land Court in 2019 arguing that a flawed zoning process allowed a “medical facility” in a residential neighborhood. A group of city residents formed an opposition organization to the home, Citizens for Holyoke, whose “No on Yale” campaign signs are planted in neighbors’ yards right on the property line of the home and have dotted the lawns of other homes in surrounding neighborhoods. 

“The fundamental issue here is that there was a zoning process that was flawed,” Scott DeFelice, one of the co-founders of Citizens for Holyoke, said Thursday. “This is a medical facility and in our R1-zoned areas, where you cannot allow a facility that has medical as a major purpose.”

The abutters’ lawsuit is ongoing, but the project is also moving forward. On March 18, Holyoke Building Commissioner Damian Cote signed a three-month certificate of use and occupancy for the group home, certifying that the building is in accordance with provisions of the city’s revised zoning ordinance and state building codes. The certificate currently restricts occupants from using the eight bedrooms on its upper floor — a restriction related to water issues the city is soon resolving, Mental Health Association representatives said.

Christine Palmieri, MHA’s vice president for recovery and housing, said that the state’s Bureau of Substance Addiction Services — which will be covering the cost for residents in the program — conducted its licensing inspection on Wednesday and could issue a license this week. Palmieri and other staffers also stressed that no medical treatment occurs at the home.

As for the contentious political climate around the home, Palmieri said the organization is focused on helping the marginalized community it will serve and plans to be good neighbors.

“There’s a lawsuit, yes,” Palmieri said. “There’s some friction with our neighbors, but we have also gotten lots of support from the Holyoke community … Those signs don’t represent the feelings of the entire Holyoke community.”

Built in 1919, the home sits on 0.66 acres and had been for sale for more than five years before MHA purchased the building in 2019 for $561,500, according to property records. Inside the front door, a kitchen and bright dining room with two large tables sit ready for residents to share meals. Those are separated from the living room by a large staircase leading up to a second floor where eight beds await residents. On the third floor, a formerly unfinished attic now has seven bedrooms, though the program will have to wait for city water work to finish on the street level before they are allowed to house residents up there, according to MHA representatives.

Palmieri said that the home has 27 people on its waitlist, with the first six likely moving in over the next two weeks. Residents’ stays will typically be between 10 months and a year, though could be longer, O’Donnell said. The program will assess a resident’s needs, get them connected with resources and help them in their addiction journey to eventually living independently.

“It’s very exciting to be part of an organization that is creating a place for individuals to be safe and to focus on their recovery,” said Cordero Crenshaw, a senior program supervisor. “To be part of their journey and to see them grow is very exciting for me.”

Despite the enthusiasm within the building, opponents of the project have been raising concerns about the project proceeding while the abbutters’ lawsuit is ongoing. This week, Citizens for Holyoke said in a press release that recent events are “an outrage and dead wrong for the city.”

The group was referring to the city’s decision to issue a certificate of occupancy to the building, which creates an “occupancy load” of 48 people. The group called the home a “48 occupant medical facility,” even though only 16 residents will be present and MHA staff say no medical treatment will take place. DeFelice, the cofounder of the group, said property values are a primary concern for neighbors.

“This is a very poor city and we routinely get pushed around by commercial interests that want to do things,” DeFelice said. “This is a challenged community, and we have to protect the assets of the community, and one of the assets is our wonderful housing stock.”

In its statement, the Citizens for Holyoke group noted that At-Large City Councilor Michael Sullivan has filed an order that would change zoning ordinances to require a special permit for a residential care or rehabilitation center in a residential neighborhood. The group accused At-Large Councilor Rebecca Lisi, who chairs the Ordinance Committee, of stonewalling that effort.

Lisi, who is running for mayor, said Wednesday that Sullivan filed the order — similar to one previously filed by Ward 3 Councilor David Bartley — after the city’s attorney advised councilors against taking up such changes with a legal challenge pending.

“Our legal counsel had advised us that since there’s pending litigation we shouldn’t be discussing this issue, we shouldn’t be altering any zoning related to group homes and congregate living,” Lisi said. “It’s not that I’m stonewalling it, it’s that that’s the advice we’ve gotten from our legal counsel.”

Sullivan, who is also running for mayor, did not respond to email and phone messages requesting an interview.

Holyoke City Solicitor Crystal Barnes said that both the city and MHA have filed for summary judgment in the abutters’ lawsuit, and that “the back and forth of those pleadings will be continuing probably another 30 to 60 days, given timelines from the court.”

DeFelice said Citizens for Holyoke plans to continue its campaign opposing the Yale Street facility, and that abutters’ have made their case in court that the home “has medical as a major element.”

As for MHA, Palmieri said that it is possible that residents arriving at the home will be impacted by the corridor of “No on Yale” signs greeting them in the neighborhood. But once inside the building, she said residents will be cared for.

“Our goal is to help them to thrive despite whatever they experience in the world,” Palmieri said. “We’re going to support our folks to be able to live proudly.”

Dusty Christensen can be reached at dchristensen@gazettenet.com.


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