Serenity Court’s future is uncertain

It has been more than a month since the 18 residents of Serenity Court, an adult care house in Lynwood Center, were told that their home would be closing.

Since then, progress has been made on a plan to create new homes for residents who want to stay on Bainbridge. But family members of Serenity residents and Serenity staff members say they don’t understand why a house that has for decades provided a safe community for developmentally disabled adults, now needs to be disbanded.

“Residents are scared, and they are just as much a part of Bainbridge as anybody,” Serenity employee Marilyn Boyce said. “It breaks my heart that they are doing this, and I don’t think this had to happen.”

In late March, Kitsap County Consolidated Housing Authority, which owns the 106-year-old house and surrounding property, told Serenity residents, family members and staff that the house would likely be closing.

Serenity Court had been losing money, and KCCHA had been subsidizing its operations, which are overseen by Low Income Housing Institute of Seattle. KCCHA Director of Public Affairs Sarah Lee said there was little support for revitalizing the aging house because state standards for adult care, especially for developmentally disabled residents, had shifted to smaller group homes.

Instead, KCCHA has developed a plan to sell one of the three lots on the Serenity property and use the proceeds to pay for the creation of three new family adult homes on Bainbridge. One of the homes would be built on the site and two others would be purchased elsewhere. Lee said that any excess money from the land sale would be set aside for maintaining and operating the new homes. KCCHA would consider applying for state operations subsidies if needed.

Lee said that at a meeting last week, representatives of the state Housing Trust Fund, which originally granted KCCHA $1.5 million to purchase Serenity Court, informally endorsed KCCHA’s plan to restructure the boarding house into several smaller group homes. The plan still needs the official approval of HTF’s board.

Ideally the two homes secured off the property would be up and running by the end of the year while the third could be built and ready by spring of 2009.

Lee said she was optimistic that Serenity will stay open while the new houses are readied.

Change is already afoot at Serenity Court.

According to staff, one resident has left the house since it was announced the home would be closing.

Case workers from the state Department of Social and Health Services have been working with residents and their families to assess housing options.

Terry Marker, assistant director of Home and Community Services for DSHS said his department has been working with seven Serenity residents who are not eligible for state developmentally disabled programs. Their housing options range from in-home care, to adult family homes to large boarding houses, Marker said.

“Our mission is to talk to families about what those venues look like, and offer up options,” he said. “But we don’t make the choices, we’re not in the choosing business.”

Marker said his department is open to the idea of new group homes on Bainbridge, and said they will do what they can to find homes for residents on the island if they want to stay.

Don Clintsman, assistant director of DSHS’ Division of Developmental Disabilities, said staff from his department has also been meeting with Serenity residents.

Clintsman said DSHS still occasionally refers clients to boarding homes, but overall the state standards for developmentally disabled care have gradually shifted to adult family homes designed to meet client’s specific needs.

“It’s not that there is anything particularly wrong with boarding homes,” Clintsman said. “We want to provide individualized care for residents.”

The Hope House adult home on Sunrise Drive could be used as a model for the reincarnation of Serenity Court, Lee said.

Hope House is one of three adult group homes on Bainbridge, and the only one tailored to younger developmentally disabled adults. With just five residents, it fits within the new model for developmentally disabled adult care, said Lorraine Ekholm who founded Hope House with her husband Steve in 2006.

“It’s a more natural setting,” she said. “It’s five people living together as a family with a facilitator. There is not as much mass scheduling and they don’t have to be moved around in pods.”

Ekholm works as a para-educator and Bainbridge High School and sees a huge demand for group homes, especially among young developmentally disabled adults who need a safe but liberating living experience. Hope House was full before it ever opened its doors and Ekholm said she receives about one call a week from the families of potential clients.

Hope House currently operates in the red, Ekholm said, and stays afloat in part because she and her husband are not paid. The home is seeking nonprofit status and Ekholm believes small, specialized group homes can be self sustaining on the island if managed properly.

Many family members of Serenity Court residents say they were bewildered to hear that the large group home, which seemed to function well, was now considered an obsolete model for care.

They say their loved ones are comfortable in the old house above Lynwood Center. They like that there are shops and theaters in safe, easy walking distance from the home. They like the community feel at Serenity, where residents have a varied social life. And they especially appreciate the large staff that provides 24-hour care.

Some family members disagree that smaller homes would be a better alternative to Serenity Court.

Jessi Katz, whose brother Clifford has lived at Serenity for six months, said she was staggered with news the home would be divided.

“If they can stay on the island, that’s a good thing, but they are still splitting up a family,” Katz said. “It just feels like an ambush. I just don’t know where to go from here.”

When Linda Voigt, the sister of Serenity resident Jack Norris, heard that the house might close, she considered moving her brother closer to her home in Renton.

“I’ve looked at some other homes. It would be nice to have him close, but they’re not as good as Serenity,” Voigt said. “If he could move in with people he knows from Serenity he would still have that support he has on Bainbridge Island.”

Voigt said she has been working with DDD to find options for housing, and hopes Norris can stay on the island. But she is not convinced that an adult family home will provide better care for her brother.

Voigt said Norris likes having his own space while being surrounded by a familiar community.

“It’s more like normal life than adult family homes,” Voigt said.

The future is also uncertain for Serenity’s longtime staff members.

They have been writing letters asking that the house be kept intact, and hope more islanders will speak up in support of the residents and home.

Boyce, who works nights at Serenity, said she has been frustrated by a lack of information regarding the home’s closure.

“There are too many rumors flying around, and we’re all upset because we’ve all been here a very long time,” she said.

Boyce said it is unclear to the staff why Serenity should be closed in favor of smaller homes, and why the aging building can’t simply be retrofit to meet safety standards.

Moreover, she said, the employees and residents should have been told sooner that their home was in trouble.

“The residents are upset, the families are upset and the staff is upset,” Boyce said. “There are a lot of questions that need to be answered by someone.”

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