The Search For Home

 
 
 

EMPOWERING THE DISABLED WITH UNCONVENTIONAL SOLUTIONS

Charles D. Hammerman

“The ache for home lives in all of us, the safe place where we can go as we are and not be questioned.”

—Maya Angelou

A HOME IS MUCH MORE THAN AN ADDRESS, a place to hang your hat. When we buy a house or sign a lease, buy our first set of dishes and pay our first month of bills, it is the first time many of us feel truly independent.

But for people with disabilities, the search for home is not just about hardwood floors or a decent-sized kitchen with sunlight; it is about safety, affordability and accessibility. For too long, this population has been deprived the opportunity of independence, of renting, or possibly even owning, their own home. And yet, the demand for such housing is enormous—and growing. There are now more than 41 million non-institutionalized Americans living with some form of disability, more than half of them adults between the ages of 18 and 65.

Families with developmentally disabled children face especially troubling questions as their children approach adulthood: “Where will my child live after they turn 21? “What will happen when I am no longer here or can no longer care for this child?” It’s become clear that regardless of where you live in the United States, there is not enough public money to fully support every person with a disability, especially when we’re facing government cutbacks at every level. We need strong partnerships across the public and private sectors.

So about six years ago, I founded The Disability Opportunity Fund, with my wife, Nanci Freiman, a vocational rehabilitation expert. The DOF is a Community Development Financing Institution (CDFI), a government-certified, nonprofit entity that provides low-interest loans and makes investments in traditionally underserved areas—in my case, markets that serves people with disabilities.

It was a long time coming. For years, I’d been exploring ways to address the needs of the disabled, inspired early on by my Uncle Burt—Dr. Burton Blatt, a leader in special education, famous for his 1966 exposé, Christmas in Purgatory, which brought national attention to the abuse of people in psychiatric institutions. (I also have a daughter, now in her 20s, with cerebral palsy.)

The DOF looks for unconventional solutions that often require involvement from players spread across a community. So far, our loans have helped expand a school for over 25 students with special needs; developed or rehabilitated 17 single-family homes for residents with developmental disabilities; and created 224 units of multi-family affordable housing.

When families want to create a home for their children we encourage them to focus on the three “C”s: Choice, Control and Community. Choose a plan you can control, and define what kind of “community” you want your children’s home to be part of, even if it’s unconventional.

Here’s an example. A few years ago, Cardinal McCloskey Services , an organization serving adults with developmental disabilities in Westchester County, N.Y. was approached by four families whose young adult children had various forms of Autism Spectrum Disorder. The children were soon going to turn 21, meaning they would be removed from their out-of-state residential educational programs. Without a game plan, the families, who all knew each other, were expected to bring their children back into their homes. Given the severity of their ASD, that was not an option.

So the families asked CMS to create a home where their adult children could live. CMS, in turn, approached us for help. Working closely with Cardinal McCloskey, the families, state and local governments and real estate agents, we developed a plan to acquire and modify a house to meet the adult children’s needs. But when the financing hit an unexpected snag, the DOF stepped in to underwrite the loan as well as provide a $525,000 bridge loan that enabled CMS to make the necessary home modifications—and the four young adults moved in a few months later.

Every project we’ve done has required intensive work, risk-taking, and sometimes a bit of luck. Ultimately, our goal is not only to come up with fresh solutions, but to spur others to come up with their own. We want to collaborate with people in communities everywhere, and learn what difficult-to solve problems you’re facing and what new approaches you’re trying, so let’s create an exchange of new ideas, strategies and possibilities.

Whatever the obstacles, don’t be discouraged. Next to my computer I’ve taped this quote by Albert Einstein: “In the middle of difficulty lies opportunity.”

Charles D. Hammerman is the President and CEO of The Disability Opportunity Fund, based in Albertson, N.Y., which has provided $7.75 million in low-interest loans to innovative programs in nine states. A former Assistant U.S. Attorney, Charlie previously spearheaded the creation of Merrill Lynch’s “Disability Awareness Professional Network.” Contact: chammerman@dof.org or visit his website, www.thedof.org.

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