‘Not everyone can live next door.’ New Hope defends decision to shut down group homes, displacing people with disabilities

When police officers arrived at the group home on Wisconsin Avenue in New Hope, paramedics were still trying to revive Jacob Zahradka. Staff at the assisted living facility had called 911 after they found the 37-year-old unconscious and not breathing in his bedroom.

A police report shows officers immediately suspected Zahradka had overdosed after they found a small plastic baggie and a bloody needle near his bed.

According to the city, the drug paraphernalia near Jacob’s body was “disorderly behavior.”

The group home, which is licensed by the state to provide services to people with behavioral health issues and substance abuse disorders, was cited for violating the city’s rental licensing code.

New Hope eventually took the rare step of revoking the rental license from the Wisconsin Avenue property and another group home nearby after neighbors and some city leaders publicly questioned whether those facilities should be allowed to operate in their community.

In doing so, the city effectively evicted nearly ten individuals with diagnosed mental health disorders and other disabilities from assisted living facilities that are licensed and regulated by the state.

The acting city manager and police chief defend the decision, saying the city is responsible for the safety of the tenants in the group home and the nearby residents.

But housing experts and disability rights advocates say it’s an alarming tactic that could leave vulnerable adults without services or housing and sets a dangerous precedent.

One expert says the city’s actions may even rise to the level of housing discrimination.

The Clients

Joseph Zahradka said a head-on car crash a decade ago left his brother Jacob with a traumatic brain injury.

“It bothered him quite a bit that he had to rely upon others so much to live his life,” Joseph Zahradka said. “He didn’t want to be a burden upon anyone, but he did need help.”

Over the last year, Jacob struggled to find housing that would provide supportive living and programs to help him with his disability.

But in May, he was excited to find a group home in New Hope.

“He told me… there’s some nice parks out here where I can jog,” Joseph recalled about his brother’s move.

Sheikh Dukuly opened that group home on Wisconsin Avenue in the spring of 2021. He and his brother own and operate more than a dozen care facilities scattered across the West Metro that serve individuals with a variety of special needs.

The group homes are licensed by the state as assisted living facilities. The clients qualify for a waiver that serves people who would normally require the level of care provided in a nursing home.

“We are under tight scrutiny,” Dukuly said. “Not only are (sic) the state monitoring us, there are case managers who are responsible for these residents.”

Some of those residents struggle with severe mental health disorders and substance abuse issues. Others, like Jacob, have suffered from traumatic brain injuries, and are unable to live without support.

With those diagnoses, according to Dukuly, come behavioral issues, including emotional and physical outbursts.

“There’s no guarantee that you’re going to get all residents who are just mellow and don’t have any behavior,” Dukuly said. “That’s not what this program is for.”

While he was relieved that Jacob found a group home, Joseph became suspicious that his brother started to use drugs while staying there.

“He kind of hid it from me… he was ashamed of it and didn’t want me to know,” Joseph said.

He wasn’t the only one concerned about what was happening inside the house on Wisconsin Avenue.

The neighbors

One by one, neighbors took to the podium inside the city council chambers in June of 2021.

“It’s obviously improper placement for people like that to be placed in a… a residential area,” said one woman.

“They are behaviorally, completely out of control,” she added.

“They’re very belligerent,” another said. 

A long-time homeowner begged the council to “figure out how to take care of this.”

At that meeting, city leaders told the residents their jurisdiction was limited since the group home is a state-licensed facility.

“Our hands are somewhat tied at this point,” said council member John Elder.

A year later, the city started to untie its hands when police began citing the group home on Wisconsin Avenue for “disorderly behavior.”

In addition to the “drug activity/paraphernalia” they found next to Jacob Zahradka’s body, the group home was also cited for two other disturbances.

In one case, a neighbor reported unwelcome comments from a resident who yelled, “Hey baby, where are you going?” as she left for work. 

That same resident was cited for yelling at a staff member and throwing a cup at a window in frustration. 

“The city should not be giving citation[s] because vulnerable adults have mental health crises,” Dukuly said. “These people are not regular tenants. These are mental health people.”

Those violations allowed the city to revoke the rental license at the group home on Wisconsin Avenue and another home operated by Dukuly on Boone Avenue. 

City council records reviewed by 5 INVESTIGATES show they are the only rental properties to have their licenses revoked since 2010.

In an interview, acting city manager and police chief Tim Hoyt justified the city’s decision to fully enforce the rental ordinance for the first time in more than a decade.

“It’s not just the group home,” he said. “It’s all the neighbors. It’s everybody living around that facility. The tenants in the property have to be safe.”

Hoyt said the types of calls his officers were responding to were “alarming.”

A review of police reports and 911 calls by 5 INVESTIGATES reveals those calls regularly involved nuisance problems, like loud noise, and medical emergencies, including when residents were experiencing a mental health crisis.

“If there was, like, gunfire and violent activities… I get that,” said Lawrence McDonough, a nationally-recognized housing attorney. “The idea that this group home had to be shut down for the protection of neighbors and the residents themselves over yelling, throwing a cup and unwelcome comments, and a drug issue just shocks me.”

McDonough said it also raises serious legal questions. 

“I see this action as potentially being housing discrimination,” he added.

Hoyt declined to answer questions about the legal repercussions of the decision and referred those answers to the city attorney’s office.

The council member

McDonough says his concerns about housing discrimination are based on the revocation, along with comments from city leaders.

In October, council member Jonathan London said during a city council meeting he believed there are too many group homes in New Hope.

“There was a time when some people, they were put in non-residential settings, right? Somewhere that was a building… like a hospital, where they could be better taken care of. The state legislature needs to get back to that,” London said. “They need to realize not everyone can live next door in a residential setting.”

Barnett Rosenfield, the state’s Ombudsman for Mental Health and Developmental Disabilities, disagrees. 

“Everybody, with the right kinds of services and supports as might be needed, is able to live in the community,” he said during an interview with 5 INVESTIGATES. “I think it is a problem when your operating assumption is there are some people that just shouldn’t be here, and they should be in some other kind of institutional setting.” 

Rosenfield’s office advocates on behalf of vulnerable adults who receive services in state-licensed facilities. He said he’s concerned that this could set a dangerous precedent in Minnesota.

“If every city starts to take this approach, where do people who need direct care end up living?” he said.

Rosenfield said the displacement from the New Hope group homes’ shutdown only adds to an already-stressed system extensively covered by 5 INVESTIGATES.

“Many assisted living facilities are either not admitting clients right now or are only admitting clients who have relatively low service needs,” he said.

It’s a similar struggle Jacob Zahradka faced.

“Probably the number one thing that he needed was help navigating the healthcare system here in Minnesota,” Joseph Zahradka said. 

But Jacob was determined to live the life he chose. When Joseph started going through his brother’s belongings after his death, he found a pink Post-It note. He believes Jacob wrote it to himself to encourage him to keep fighting to find the help he needed.

In scrawled handwriting, it said, “keep calling, all people, workers, until something is done.”