Tuesday, December 8, 2015

LIGHTS spurs families to take action on housing

By Louise Kinross

LIGHTS is a Toronto program that brings together families of young adults with intellectual disabilities to help them plan creative housing so their sons and daughters can move out. It’s a partnership with Community Living Toronto and was founded by Mary Pat Armstrong, a parent who purchased a home for her own daughter and roommates to move into more than a decade ago. 

Yesterday LIGHTS senior facilitator Laura Starret met with me to talk about the innovative partnerships and ideas LIGHTS is generating at a time of crisis for housing for people with intellectual disabilities. Last year a report from the Select Committee on Developmental Services said there were 12,000 Ontario adults on a list for group homes with a wait of 20 (yes TWENTY!) years.

BLOOM: How does LIGHTS work?

Laura Starret: LIGHTS is about helping families to envision, plan for and create an alternative living situation for their son or daughter outside of the family home. The families engaged with LIGHTS are tired of waiting for the traditional housing options [through the government]. They know that the system is broken and they’re ready to take action. They want to tailor housing to their son or daughter’s unique needs.

BLOOM: How do you work with families?

Laura Starret: Most of what I do is help families plan and budget and meet other like-minded families. When Mary Pat chatted with focus groups about developing LIGHTS she found a lot of parents felt isolated and alone. They felt they were the only ones out there thinking about this. Of course they’re not alone—I’m working with over 150 families.

BLOOM: How do you connect families with similar interests in housing?

Laura Starret: The most effective way is through networking evenings where people come out to hear about a particular topic. At one of the evenings I had a continuum on a wall and asked both parents and their family member to take post-it notes and stick them on when they would like to move out—in the next six months, or 12 months or two years. Two families whose children have since moved out happened to place their post-it notes on the same spot. Families come up with the ideas of what they want and I connect ones that sound like-minded.

BLOOM: What kind of housing have you facilitated?

Laura Starret: We’ve had a family purchase a home and invite other families to join in. So they’ve figured out what the costs are and given other families a lump sum of ‘this is how much it is and this is what your dollars are going towards.’ It’s an all-inclusive type living situation.

Other families have come together to rent an apartment. In one case they found a university student who’s a mentor to two young ladies. She doesn’t pay rent but in return she spends about 10 hours a week with the two women supporting them with whatever they need: ‘You’ve never made meat loaf? Let me show you how to do that.’ In this case, the support needs of the two women are different, but the mentor can tailor her interactions to give each one what they need.

LIGHTS has also benefited from a partnership with Community Living Toronto, which supports 38 people living in 21 units in a Toronto community housing project. LIGHTS is using four of these apartments. 
Some residents require 24/7 type of support and others need only a few hours a week. Some units are rent-geared-to-income, which makes them most affordable for someone on the Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP). The people in this building say their social circles have quadrupled because of the greater opportunity to socialize with people.

We have three gentlemen who live together in a house. They go to a program or to work during the day but have a caregiver who lives with them Sunday until Friday morning, to help with their evening routine. On Friday the men go home for the weekend and the caregiver has the weekend off. Every situation is different.

BLOOM: Is LIGHTS just for families with high incomes?

Laura Starret: No. I always tell families you have to take a creative approach to it. The vision for LIGHTS has always been that it’s about you helping me and me helping you. Families will contribute in different ways. Having open dialogues and people to bounce ideas off motivates people to move and creates momentum. We recently had a real estate agent volunteer to do apartment and housing searches for our families.

Once a family has a partnership with another family or families, we do an individualized budget with each person. The budget is based on shared costs and costs unique to that person. So we apply the person’s own resources, like the ODSP, and list out all of the expenses, leaving us with a gap. The family is expected to contribute a minimum of 20 per cent of the gap. LIGHTS has raised $4.7 million over the last five years. In some cases LIGHTS can help fill the gap. When we’re planning with families it’s not just the residential side, it’s for the person’s whole day.

BLOOM: How many housing arrangements have you facilitated?

Laura Starret: We’ve had 30 that relied on LIGHTS funding to bridge the difference, but others that just required planning, budgeting and networking support.

BLOOM: What kind of changes have you seen in people who have moved into their own place?

Laura Starret: We’ve seen some pretty incredible stuff. Families often report how people are doing things they would never do at home. We see people being open to taking risks, meeting new people and expanding their horizons.

Photo by Louis Thomas 

Alexander and Simon, in photo above, are two LIGHTS friends who decided to rent apartments in the same building and meet once a week to cook dinner together. You may remember this piece we did a year ago about two young women whose families got together through LIGHTS to rent an apartment that they share.