Home for cancer patients takes shape as debate over its fate simmers

When it comes to community houses, group homes, and properties with temporary occupants, resistance from neighbors is anything but new.

In the Philadelphia region and across the nation, residents of towns of all shapes and sizes have opposed these short-term residences, places such as houses for troubled teens or recovering addicts. The circumstances have been different, and so have the homes.

Many of the people who fight them also say they support them in principle — they see their value. But when it comes to locating such facilities in residential neighborhoods, there are safety concerns, they say, and traffic questions, as well as worries about where to park all the extra cars. Supporters of the projects often lambaste these critics as NIMBYs — “not in my back yard” types who, they say, express opposition only when the group homes affect them directly.

For decades, as emphasis has been placed on less institutionalization and better reentry for certain populations into the larger community, such debates have been a defining aspect of hometown democracy. Each residence for adults with developmental disabilities, or sober home, or home for the mentally ill raises questions about how much control individual homeowners can and should have when their neighborhood is on the cusp of change.

Currently, there are no authoritative figures on how many such homes exist in the region, though at least one tracker estimates as many as 700 in Pennsylvania and 400 in New Jersey.

A recent controversy has swirled in Swarthmore, the quiet, affluent Delaware County town of 6,200 people. But the house in question is no typical “group home” — and the fight over it is just as unconventional.

At the corner of one of the borough’s busiest intersections, the sprawling, seven-bedroom property at 200 S. Chester Rd. is well-known to passersby. Situated next to Swarthmore College’s campus, a Presbyterian church, and a block of stately residences, it had been on and off the market for three years when Cheryl Colleluori stumbled upon it in 2016. Just a few doors down sits ABC Strath Haven – a home that, through a national organization, provides academically talented students of color a chance at a better school district.

Cheryl Colleluori, founder of the Headstrong Foundation, stands in the large entrance to the home she and others are rehabbing in Swarthmore for out-of-town families to stay in while their children are being treated for cancer at area hospitals. (MICHAEL BRYANT/Staff Photographer)

As president of the Headstrong Foundation, a Delaware County-based nonprofit, Colleluori was searching for a property for its next project: a home for cancer patients and those who care for them, the second of its kind for Headstrong.

It didn’t take long, however, for opposition from neighbors to mount.

The way Colleluori and the rest of Headstrong envisioned it, the foundation would transform the 5,000-square-foot property so it could accommodate the patients and caretakers at no cost.

Inspired by her own experience with her son, Nick, Colleluori knew the kinds of financial and logistical stress cancer treatment could bring. After Nick was diagnosed at age 19 with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma in 2005, Colleluori said, she and her family spent months traveling, racking up not just medical bills, but also lodging and travel expenses.

“We would have four kids, plus my husband and I, staying in an 8-by-10-foot room, sleeping on air mattresses” during Nick’s treatment at the National Institutes of Health.

Before Nick died at 21, Colleluori said, he had an idea. He recognized the financial burden his cancer had created, and he knew his weeks were numbered, so he started Headstrong, with a mission of raising awareness and funds for families of cancer patients. The rest was up to his mother.

Five years ago, Colleluori opened the first “Nick’s House” in Ridley Township, a two-bedroom apartment atop Headstrong’s headquarters, located on a residential street. Since then, nearly 75 patients and their caretakers have passed through, staying weeks at a time, rent-free, in the furnished unit.

This Ridley Township building houses the Headstrong Foundation’s headquarters, as well as an upstairs apartment for a cancer patient to stay with a caretaker. (MICHAEL BRYANT/Staff Photographer)

“We become a key component in their process,” Colleluori said. “They are leaving behind everything they know … their friends, their family, their support system, their jobs. They are coming to a strange town, and it’s very unnerving because it’s unfamiliar territory and they are already in a circumstance that they are unfamiliar with.”

The problem, Colleluori said: Nick’s House was always full, and each week saw people turned away. Last year, she began the search for a second property.

In the fall, the Headstrong Foundation made a bid for the Swarthmore house, offering nearly $700,000. To make it work, Headstrong would need an accommodation under the Fair Housing Act to circumvent a borough ordinance barring more than three unrelated people from living together.

Swarthmore’s Planning Commission approved the accommodation. Then nearly two dozen neighbors appealed, asking for the decision to be overturned.

An attorney for the neighbors did not return calls last week, and one neighbor who was contacted declined to comment. But in previous interviews with the Inquirer, and in an editorial for the Delaware County Daily Times, neighbors have explained that they do not oppose living among cancer patients. Rather, some said, they oppose having as many as 14 unrelated people living inside the house — calling the accommodation unreasonable and one that would create a “hospitality hotel” and bring more traffic and parking to an already busy block, among other concerns.

In December, the Swarthmore Borough Council unanimously sided with the Headstrong Foundation. The neighbors have since appealed to Delaware County Court, arguing that the borough “erred and abused its discretion” when it approved Headstrong’s request.

“We were disappointed,” James J. Byrne Jr., the neighbors’ attorney, said in an interview in December. “My clients … hope they won’t be vilified for trying to voice their opinion about their property rights.”

Oral arguments in the case are scheduled for next month. Headstrong has closed on the property, with the official groundbreaking set for July 6.

The property will require a lot of work, including an elevator and additional parking, to bring it up to snuff for the people it will serve. Beyond that, the foundation is working to restore much of the dwelling’s original detailing — ornate banisters and chestnut floors, and a wraparound porch dating to the house’s construction more than 100 years ago.

Nearly all the effort is being volunteered, with a collection of private companies and union employees giving their services and time, including Dave White from the Delaware County Council, who is donating plumbing and ventilation work. Target Building Construction and Donald M. Conneen & Associates Architects, also volunteers, are leading the project.

In Ridley Township, Sara Austin and her 4-year-old son, Ben, have been staying at the first iteration of Nick’s House for the last eight weeks. Last summer, Ben was diagnosed with Wilms tumor, a type of kidney cancer. He relapsed earlier this year — and the Headstrong Foundation granted him a spot.

“This completely uproots you, and you do the best that you can,” Austin said. “The car rides when he was car sick from his treatment, the hotels that we would have to clean.”

“These types of situations call for action, and this foundation is that,” she said. “You don’t have to be a person with no income to fall on a difficult time in a situation of cancer. It’s a huge burden; it doesn’t matter if you had great income or not.”

Ben Austin, 4, who suffers from Wilms tumor, talks to his mother, Sara Austin, during lunch at the HeadStrong residence in Ridley Township, where they are staying while Ben receives treatment at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. (MICHAEL BRYANT/Staff Photographer)