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Struggling to save Serenity Court

Program manager Wendy Mitchell sits with resident Jack Norris after the busload of residents returned from their outbound activities.  - Brad Camp/Staff Photo
Program manager Wendy Mitchell sits with resident Jack Norris after the busload of residents returned from their outbound activities.
— image credit: Brad Camp/Staff Photo

There were still plenty of smiles at Serenity Court on Tuesday evening.

As residents gathered in the hall after a dinner of turkey and mashed potatoes, they chided each other about baseball teams and Rachel’s adoration of Philadelphia Phillies pitcher Jamie Moyer.

But there was sadness, too, in the historic three-story house in Lynwood Center.

At a meeting last week, the 18 residents of the Serenity Court, a group home for developmentally disabled adults, were told that the house many have lived in for decades could soon be closing.

Both the 106-year-old building and its “boarding house” style of care are out of date for modern standards for adult group homes. Over the next month, Kitsap County Consolidated Housing Authority, which owns Serenity Court, is developing a plan to find new homes for the residents on the island and will know by the end of the month how soon the house will have to close.

Whatever happens, there are big changes ahead for the people who call Serenity Court home.

“It will be sad when they close this house,” said Ronnie, a Serenity Court resident who helps out at the Treehouse Cafe. “I enjoy this house.”

Serenity Court, which sits on a hill above Lynwood Center, began life as Pleasant Beach School and was later used as a sanitarium and eventually a nursing home.

In 2005 longtime owner and operator Ruth Closser decided she could no longer shoulder the burden of providing 24-hour care to the home’s residents.

KCCHA, a public organization that preserves low-income housing properties, obtained a loan to buy the property from Closser with help from the city.

The state-administered Housing Trust Fund gave KCCHA a grant of $1.5 million to pay off the loan, and the Low Income Housing Institute of Seattle agreed to manage the home. The plan was to renovate the house, but funding for the upgrades was scarce, KCCHA Director of Public Affairs Sarah Lee said.

This winter LIHI reported that it was losing money running the home, and KCCHA began subsidizing its operations and took over its redevelopment plans.

When KCCHA checked into options for renovating the house, Lee said the Department of Social and Health Services wasn’t interested in licensing Serenity Court if it were renovated, or a similar large group home built on the property.

State standards for developmentally disabled care had shifted since Serenity Court opened. Now smaller “adult group homes” with four to six residents are the preferred alternative to the once-popular boarding house model.

Housing Trust Fund initially resisted KCCHA’s interest in building smaller group homes to house on the site to house Serenity Court residence, but has now agreed to accept a revised proposal, Lee said.

KCCHA will need to submit the amended plan by April 18, and will know by the end of the month if it is accepted.

To help develop the plan, DSHS will be interviewing Serenity Court residents and their families in the coming week to determine where they would most like to live.

Lee said the new housing plan would likely include three new small adult group homes to be bought or built on the island. One would ideally be located on the current property, and a portion of the property may be sold to pay for the redevelopment.

“Our number one priority is providing for the people living here right now,” Lee said. “Number two is making sure what we build works for the next generation of residents.”

The new homes would need to meet the needs of the a diverse group of adults.

Serenity Court residents range in age from 20 to 93, and some have lived in the house for decades. Though there are occasional tiffs, most are comfortable with the house and their roommates, said Wendy Mitchell, who manages Serenity Court.

“For the people who live here, and the majority have lived here for many years, they are happy with it the way it is,” she said. “That doesn’t mean they won’t be happy somewhere else.”

Staff are on site 24 hours a day and take care of cooking meals, laundry and help some of the residents with dressing, bathing and medications. During the day, buses take residents to special needs programs in the area, including the Helpline House, Kitsap Mental Health and Senior Support Services.

Located on a hill above Pleasant Beach Drive, the house has a view of the water from its top floor and is within easy walking distance of Lynwood Center businesses. The more mobile residents walk or ride bicycles to the theater and cafes to buy things or just hang out and talk to the regulars. A few have part time jobs sweeping or helping out in kitchens.

Jessi Katz said the independent yet protective family atmosphere of Serenity Court has been healing for her brother Clifford.

Clifford, 58, has cerebral palsy and came to Serenity House after undergoing treatment at Harborview Hospital and the University of Washington Medical Center to relieve liquid buildup on his brain. When he came to the house Katz said he needed a walker to get around and would only give yes or no answers to questions. Now he is walking unassisted and is more talkative she said.

Before being hospitalized he lived in a small adult home, but Katz said the staff was to stretched thin to give him the attention his condition required. She said he has thrived in the larger group setting.

“At first Cliff didn’t want to be at Serenity house,” Katz said. “But then he realized there was a community, there were people he could laugh and joke with and they take care of each other.”

Katz trust in the Serenity House’s staff is a key part of why residents feel at home there. Several of the staff members worked at the home with Closser and there futures are as uncertain as the residents’.

Sonya Christopherson has worked in the home for nearly 22 years and said she hopes the residents can stay together.

“They are my family,” she said. “This is all my family.”

Lee said there are already good examples of group homes caring for adults on the island. She points to Hope House, a recently opened residence for young developmentally disabled adults, which filled quickly after its recent opening.

KCCHA Program Director Julie Graves, said that the closure of Serenity Court could be an opportunity to create more modern adult care options on the island.

“As sad as it is to think of people moving out of Serenity house, it’s really exciting to have people moving into safe housing,” Graves said.

If its plan to build more group homes is approved KCCHA will be looking for licensed operators to run the proposed adult group homes.

Mayor Darlene Kordonowy, also a KCCHA board member, said she hopes their are community members who will step up to help the Serenity Court residents with whatever transition lies ahead.

“When things get bad, that’s when a lot of people come out of the woodwork to help,” she said.

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