HAVERHILL — Residents of the Westland Terrace neighborhood say they've been living peacefully near a group home run by the nonprofit Vinfen company, but were shaken up by an incident that occurred on the morning of July 5.

The residents claim the incident put them and the children in the neighborhood at risk and asked the City Council for help.

At Tuesday night's council meeting, police Capt. Robert Pistone explained that upwards of 12 vehicles had their tires slashed in the Westland Terrace neighborhood, and that potted plants and mail boxes had been tipped over.

Pistone said that later that day, police arrested a resident of the group home, which he said is located at 20 Westland Terrace.

"Unfortunately, he had a mental health crisis ... he had heard voices and he went out with a knife and entered various yards," Pistone said. "Understandably, residents were concerned and had some valid concerns ... how they can be assured of keeping their children and their families and property safe."

Residents wanted answers as to what Vinfen will do to prevent another similar occurrence.

Vinfen Chief Operating Officer Sophie Jones told the council that the home houses eight people who live there independently, and that Vinfen is their service provider and their landlord.

She said Vinfen works for and with the state Department of Mental Health.

Jones, responding to questions by councilors as to how the home is staffed, said there are no on-site staff, but that staff visits residents two or three time per month, but not always on the property.

Councilor Thomas Sullivan wanted answers as to what Vinfen can do to better connect with the neighborhood, including the Gale Park association.

"There's a disconnect," Sullivan said. "If this was my neighborhood, I'd very much want to be involved and know how that house runs and who is in it."

Jones said her clients have a right to privacy and it would be up to them as to whether they want to participate in neighborhood events.

Jones avoided a question posed by Councilor Melinda Barrett as to whether Vinfen is responsible for the damages caused by the resident, saying it was an act of vandalism and there is a criminal process that must still play out. She said the DMH places the residents in the group home.

Councilor Joseph Bevilacqua empathized with Jones' clients, but he also has empathy for the neighbors.

"They have a right and an expectation to be safe in their own neighborhoods," he said. 

Bevilacqua said that in light of the July 5 incident, a staff member should be on-site at all times. Other councilors also asked Jones to boost staffing, but her responses involved how group homes operate under a DMH model.

"When neighbors leave here tonight, I'm not sure they feel safer," Bevilacqua said, adding that he wanted the council to send a letter to state officials notifying them of the need for on-site staffing of the group home.

Residents of that neighborhood, which is located at the northern end of Mill Street, near Gale Park, had sent a letter to members of the council noting their concern with the July 5 incident, indicating the group home resident charged with the vandalism "acted aggressively toward a neighbor walking his dog." 

"We have lived with this group home in harmony for many years," they noted in a letter signed by Saltonstall Road resident Daniel Robertson and six of his neighbors. "We have been patient with the incidents that have occurred in the past, but when our personal safety and the safety of our property is threatened, we lose our patience."

They noted that more than a dozen children under the age of 10 immediately live adjacent to Vinfen's property and regularly play outside and ride bikes. 

"There was an outside possibility that this could have been more than property damage," Robertson told councilors. "We've been good neighbors from the beginning. Vinfen needs to be a better neighbor."

Pistone told the council that since 1999, police responded to the group home 213 times. Since the start of 2019,  police have responded just 21 times, although he noted that all of the calls were medical in nature and involved residents with mental health issues.

Vinfen officials noted that they have been in charge of the group home since 2012.

Pistone said the July 5 incident was the first violent incident involving a resident of the group home, over the past three years.

"It's very scary," Councilor Tim Jordan said. "The thought of someone going down the street with a knife, slashing tires."

Robertson told the council there was a "parade" of flatbed trucks in his neighborhood following the tire slashing incident, including three of his family's vehicles.

The council voted to send letters to various state agencies, including the Department of Mental Health the Department of Developmental Services, as well as to the city's legislative delegation, outlining their concerns with how group homes operate in Haverhill.

Following the meeting, Westland Terrace resident Laura Wrisley told The Eagle-Tribune that Jones had few answers for neighbors.

"The family of the resident who slashed the tires put him with Vinfen, which is being paid money to take care of him and make sure this doesn't happen," she said. "They let him down and they let his family down. And she (Jones) took no responsibility."

"I don't feel like we got anywhere," Robertson said, adding that he and his fellow neighbors were frustrated with the response by Jones. "She didn't even apologize to us."