The District Bureaucracy Bears Down on a Dream

by Marc Fisher, The Washington Post, 2006

See original article here. 

John Cook doesn’t look like a man facing the prospect of 900 days in jail. As I meet Cook in the home he runs for mentally disabled people in Adams Morgan, the D.C. government is threatening to slam him with fines and jail time because he refuses to evict a 75-year- old man whose greatest wish in life is to have his own little apartment.

In a gentle but firm voice, Cook makes it clear: “I will not comply with this illegal, unnecessary and dangerous eviction notice.” With that, he graciously takes me to meet Eugene Sampson and his cat, Joseph.

You might think that the D.C. government had done enough harm to Sampson, who spent nearly half a century of his life confined to Forest Haven, the city’s now-shuttered snake pit for the retarded. But it’s not done with Sampson. Ten days ago, just before Thanksgiving, the city’s fire department issued the order to evict Sampson because the Health Department had complained that he is the sixth resident in a group home that the Consumer and Regulatory Affairs Department says is certified for only five disabled people.

With every day that passes, Cook’s potential punishment increases by $300 and 90 days in jail.

” ‘Evicted’ is kind of a harsh word,” says D.C. fire spokesman Alan Etter. “I think ‘relocated to a proper situation’ is better.”

Why does Sampson have to go?

“It’s a safety issue because they had one more person than they were permitted to have,” Etter says. “And this person had mobility issues — he’s in a wheelchair — and he’s on the top floor. If there were to be a fire, evacuating him would be difficult.”

Sounds reasonable, right? Except for this: Sampson does not use a wheelchair. I accompanied him on his daily walk to the corner, where he likes to meet people and say hello. And this: He doesn’t live on the top floor, but rather on the first floor of the house, run by L’Arche, the worldwide charity that operates what many in the mental disabilities field consider some of the planet’s best and most humane group homes.

The fire department wants Sampson out, even though Cook, executive director of L’Arche in Washington, applied months ago for a change in paperwork that would make it okay for the sixth person in the home to stay. Technically, L’Arche is in violation of the District’s five-resident cap, but there are enough bedrooms in the house for several more residents, and the charity has repeatedly sought to raise the cap, with no response from the city.

Once again, the inability of a big bureaucracy to exercise a bit of discretion is leading to an assault on those who devote themselves to doing good. Last week, we had the sad spectacle of Fairfax County putting the letter of the law ahead of the grace of human generosity, deciding — until a Washington Post story and the ensuing public outcry forced it to backtrack — that charities and individuals may not give home-cooked food to the hungry and the homeless. Now the District government is going after L’Arche, which seeks to give mentally disabled people lives of dignity and purpose.

Thrilled with his new studio apartment in the rowhouse on Ontario Place NW, Sampson has hung his paintings on the wall. He shows me the little cabinet where Joseph the cat hides when Sampson is out. He talks about his days at an activities program in Tenleytown: “We make stuff. On Fridays, we have a movie.”

On a shelf, he keeps a photo of his trip to the Caribbean, which he took after a court ordered the District to find the money former Forest Haven residents had earned doing jobs there.

Sampson worked as a pallbearer; many times, he and one other man were the only people attending funerals at Forest Haven. When Sampson finally got his few thousand dollars, he had to spend down his assets or lose his Medicaid coverage, Cook explains. Thus, the cruise.

What did you like about the trip? I ask.

“Elvis Presley,” Sampson says, with a big grin. The impersonators — finally good for something.

Nothing the D.C. government can do would make Cook remove Sampson from the only apartment he’s ever had.

Cook spends an inordinate chunk of his life fighting D.C. bureaucrats. Mostly, their inane wishes are his commands. Like the time a fire inspector came in, saw Joseph and ordered Cook to install a “cat door,” a four-foot-high obstacle to keep the cat out of the kitchen. Cook immediately complied.

A year later, the same inspector returned and summoned Cook: “What’s that thing?”

“Your cat door.”

The inspector couldn’t recall his arbitrary command. The cat door went away.

“L’Arche operates in 16 states, and everybody’s got problems with the government,” Cook says. “But nobody experiences anything like what we go through here. This city devalues and humiliates people with intellectual disabilities.”

In a city where the group home system is riddled with awful places, the District aims its fire instead at an unusually inviting and pleasant facility.

The city forced L’Arche to post a sign announcing that the building houses the mentally retarded. The city told L’Arche to seal up a beautiful fireplace, even though the residents all understand the dangers of fire. The city required L’Arche to install locks on cabinets where household cleansers are kept, even though the residents use those products in their work as janitors or housekeepers.

“There is a constant effort to stigmatize, to demean and humiliate,” Cook says. “It’s a signal to residents that they aren’t right and they aren’t like us.”

And it is all done with your tax dollars, in your name.