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Supportive Housing and Service Design

(first published on the Autism Community website)

by David Wetherow

The housing design questions recently appearing on the Our-Kids Adults mailing list have intrigued us for a long time. As we search for solutions which combine the qualities of affordable housing, sustainability, companionship, and flexibility, we begin to ask:

bulletHow can we begin to create community for ourselves?
bulletHow can we 'build community' with our sons and daughters and our friends who live with disabilities?
bulletHow can we retain control in as many aspects of our lives as possible -- including housing, relationships, and the supports that we call services?
bulletHow can we retain flexibility in our housing and support arrangements?
bulletHow can we create contexts of neighborliness, understanding and acceptance in our living arrangements?

Many of the correspondents on the Our-Kids/Adults list have been developing practical responses to this set of inter-related questions for years -- working in such diverse areas as:

bulletCreating circles of support and personal support networks
bulletIndividualized funding and direct funding arrangements
bulletSelf-determination projects
bulletIndividual home ownership
bulletCo-housing and cooperative housing

This work has been influenced by a recognition of a common set of problems with traditional approaches to 'residential care' and subsidized housing. In these traditional arrangements it seems almost inevitable that:

bulletThe people who are 'supported' are without power. Services, housing and financial arrangements are virtually always controlled by others -- professionals, public decision-makers, bureaucrats, and service providers;
bulletThere is extremely limited flexibility in housing and service arrangements. Desirable changes are difficult to achieve, and undesirable conditions are difficult to change;
bulletThere is an extensive history of creating groups of individuals and families who are all struggling with the same problems of disability, economic instability, or social instability.  We are all aware of dysfunctional public housing 'communities' which are not communities at all;
bulletThere is a tendency to create solutions to poverty in the form of 'services' or 'projects' rather than in the form of financial supports which would create the basis for flexibility and self-determination (e.g. public housing rather than direct financial subsidies for rent or ownership).

Faye and I began work in this area in the early 1980's, experimenting with a variety of housing and support arrangements including cooperative housing, family- and consumer-directed services; Micro-boards, and direct funding to individuals with disabilities, families, and support circles. The work wasn't *perfect* (if we were doing it over again, some things would be different), but each of the projects incorporated several important design principles which we would definitely retain:

First, we followed a principle of separating the 'provision of housing' from the 'provision of services' -- making services flexible, portable, and distinctly separate from housing. Following this principle means that:

bulletPeople can relocate without losing their service supports;
bulletPeople can change service providers without losing their homes or their place in the community (think about what often happens when someone comes into conflict with the service provider in a traditional 'group home' environment);
bulletPeople can make major changes in the amount or type of service support they require without being required to relocate (think about what happens when someone who lives in a traditional residential service requires twice as much, or half as much support as they used to, or when they want to explore a different kind of living arrangement).

Secondly, whenever we developed housing, we followed a principle of creating inclusive housing arrangements -- creating housing that would be attractive to, and would include, a majority of individuals and families without disabilities, financial or social challenges. Following this principle means that:

bulletThe community includes people with a wide range of capacities, interests and connections (including connections to individuals, community associations, interest groups, and resources);
bulletThe community is economically balanced -- some members are contributing full costs, and other members may receive financial assistance towards their housing costs -- but the community is not comprised entirely of members who depend on housing or financial subsidies. This makes the community-as-a-whole less dependent on the ebb and flow of competing political and economic interests;
bulletAll members of the community are affected by common experiences, conditions and events -- this means that members who have never been affected by patterns of discrimination will find themselves in common cause with members who are likely to experience such treatment by the dominant culture. When the community experiences external or internal stress, the stress is shared by people who are used to exercising power, and who are not easy 'targets' for oppression.

Thirdly, we have always worked in the direction of individual, shared, or cooperative homeownership, creating stability for the community and its members, and conferring positive status on all members.

bulletHome ownership helps to meet the principles of self-governance, flexibility, separation of housing and services, and separation of housing from financial subsidy (even the rental of individual or shared accommodations increases flexibility, compared with living in program-controlled housing);
bulletCooperative or co-housing ownership allows the creation of a community of shared interest and responsibility, and supports equal status and self-governance among members.

Fourth, we have always worked to establish democratic governance and control, shared equally by all community members, which avoids the typical status differences between social service (or social housing) 'governors' and 'consumers' or 'recipients'.

We would always recommend that plans for multiple housing projects be adapted to include a majority of community members who do not happen to live with disabilities.

We would always recommend that in the search for affordable housing, we explore sources of direct financial subsidy, in contrast to 'public housing' solutions.  Some resources to explore:

bulletInclusive cooperative housing development;
bulletInclusive co-housing development (start at http://www.cohousing.org );
bulletSelf-determination projects
bulletIndividualized funding and direct funding;
bulletIndividual home ownership (e.g. the national Home of Your Own project);
bulletMicro-boards, and alternative forms of governing services.

2003 David and Faye Wetherow ! CommunityWorks

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