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AMISS AND ADRIFT: Land development fever ensnares disability services agency

Millions of taxpayer dollars corrupt a beloved agency's good intentions  -- 2012 Round Up, Part 4

COLUMBIA, 1/3/13 (Beat Byte) --
Boone County Family Resources (BCFR) has started looking more like a controversy-laden developer than a disability services agency.  

In the last year, the organization has torn down several houses on land it acquired around its Columbia headquarters at higher-than-market prices, some of it through Don Stamper, Central Missouri Development Council executive director.  

The demolitions sparked outrage and worry among neighbors BCFR mostly ignored.  Some of the homes were historic, provoking another tangle with Columbia's Historic Preservation Commission.  Despite the outcry, BCFR -- like most local developers, cloaked in architects and attorneys -- persisted. 

Mission statement misfire  

BCFR leaders say they want to build rental housing on the land for agency clients.  But for more than 10 years, their talk has been just that -- talk, at a time when centralized rental housing for developmentally disabled persons has been widely discredited in favor of living in the family home or in an owner-occupied home with outside assistance.

Two of BCFR's long-time clients lost their home on 7th Street -- which they owned -- to foreclosure earlier this year, so maybe the agency isn't interested in independence anymore.   Still, to use all the land they overpaid for -- some 14-15 houses and vacant lots purchased over the past decade -- for group homes and disability housing goes against virtually every modern-day, good practice in the disability community.

It also goes against BCFR's own mission statement and re-branding campaign. 

A few years ago, BCFR's board of directors changed its name from "Boone County Group Homes" to Boone County Family Resources, reflecting an IN-HOME, family-oriented mandate.

"Over 93% of children served live with their parent(s)," BCFR's annual report explained.  "The single greatest cause of unwanted out-of-home placement is a lack of appropriate family and community living supports."

Note the concept of "out-of-home" placement is termed "unwanted."

Charts in the BCFR report show how few adults live in BCFR-owned facilities -- "group homes" reserved for the agency's most severely-disabled clients, or clients without family or friends.

"Most of the persons helped by the agency are served through the Family & Community Living Support program," the report explains. "Persons served live with their families and in the community."

BCFR's list of services and programs, in fact, says nothing about "building housing for persons with development disabilities."

That job has traditionally gone to the Columbia Housing Authority (CHA), a situation CHA director Phil Steinhaus acknowledged in a 2007 Columbia Tribune article.

"Steinhaus...explained that many projects he’s looking at for the next 15 years would be partnerships with other organizations. CHA would provide a housing component and another association, such as Phoenix Programs or Boone County Family Resources, would offer social service supports."

The BCFR program closest to a housing goal is the agency's Supported Living Program, which last year helped all of 47 persons -- just 3.5% of BCFR's 1,317 clients.

Public outcry, redefined mission

A better way to spend an $11 million annual budget would be to help BCFR clients stay in their homes, not take over an entire neighborhood where residents have worked for years to overcome the same kind of deliberate neglect that has nearly destroyed so many other parts of Columbia's wonderful central city.

Still, BCFR leadership -- under Les Wagner and now, Robyn Kaufman -- persists in redefining their mission whenever public outcry so demands.   "All along, our intent has been to use that property for residential purposes," Kaufman has said, referring to their massive land purchases around Hubbell, Walnut, St. James, Orr, and Short streets.

But many worry that despite talk about client housing, BCFR plans to join hands with next door neighbors The Odles or other developers and quietly sell the land.   After all, the Odle family approached Wagner with a proposal to build -- what else -- a parking garage for students abutting BCFR's headquarters.

The nut, as the adage goes, doesn't fall far from the tree.


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