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Guest editorial: A tale of two cities and two residential projects

Guest editorial: A tale of two cities and two residential projects

by Chris Beesley, CEO, Community Living Ontario

(Originally published in the October 6, 2017 edition of Community Living Ontario Update Friday)

Editor’s note: this article accurately summarizes concerns that LiveWorkPlay shares about large-scale housing projects targeted to people with intellectual disabilities. In the face of the long waiting lists impacting all citizens who are seeking an affordable quality home, a situation that is acutely problematic for people with intellectual disabilities, it is tempting to see solutions where large numbers of labeled individuals are housed together as an answer worth considering. This however ignores what all the research and experience throughout human history tells us about supporting marginalized people – solutions that ghettoize particular groups based on race, income, disability, or other factors bring people further apart from their communities, not closer together. This applies even where the intent is different, and even where the building itself may be of high quality. The importance of ensuring an appropriately diverse balance in such situations is of critical importance, as this editorial by Chris Beesley explains.

Recently, I had the opportunity to visit two projects that are hoping to address some of the housing needs of people who have a developmental disability. One is in Guelph, the other is in Peterborough.

On the surface, there are many striking similarities. Both projects are situated on properties owned by the Catholic Church, in buildings that will be retrofitted to suit people’s needs. Both will have about 70 apartment units, and both are being spearheaded by family members who are passionate about their children’s right to belong. They all feel that their respective projects are the best way to go for their children, and perhaps others as well.

Originally known as “The Asylum for Idiots and Feeble-Minded” when it opened in Orillia in 1876, the Orillia Times newspaper exulted “It is as healthy as it is beautiful.”

Times have certainly changed, and no one in the modern era is looking to replicate the horrific experience of these institutions, where people with intellectual disabilities and mental health issues were condemned to a life that for some included daily abuse, and ended in an unmarked grave. We must be deliberate in our housing efforts.

We must not put ourselves in the position of once again apologizing for not learning from our mistakes.

(Article and caption added by LiveWorkPlay).

So why was I left feeling uneasy about one and much more optimistic about the other?

First, it must be stated that any time well-intentioned people start envisioning homes for people who have a developmental disability the results have the potential of going horribly wrong, whether it’s creating a home for one person in a single-family dwelling, or for many in an apartment complex. People’s needs and desires must be considered one at a time, supported, reinforced, and safeguarded continuously and forever.

Secondly, frustration, desperation, and dire need do not provide the most solid foundation to build upon. This is the unfortunate reality for many, but we must acknowledge it to make sure we do what’s right rather than what’s expedient.

Third, numbers matter. We must always be thoughtful and intentional when proposing that people live together. A building with 70 apartments; a handful of which are occupied by people who have a developmental disability is one thing, whereas that same building with 30 or 40 units occupied by people who have a developmental disability is another matter entirely.

Finally, we must constantly listen to people, adjusting and learning as we go along.

Community and a sense of belonging cannot be physically built. One can easily be isolated in a crowd, with activities, facilities, and people all around.

So, why one and not the other?

At the proposed Angel Oaks Project in Guelph, a father with a background in real estate development and a desire to provide a good life for his daughter and others has a vision for about 70 luxury, eco-friendly, financially sustainable units. He’s marketing his venture to seniors and to families of people who have a developmental disability, but is open to having anyone live there. There is no thought or intention on how many potentially vulnerable people is too many – let the chips fall where they may.

He has no concept of how his proposed community will put people in situations of vulnerability. He feels that if there are enough community gardens, recreational facilities, community kitchens, and programs for everyone, people will come and belonging will inevitably follow.

He is also arrogant. For nearly 70 years, the Community Living movement has been trying to listen, adjust how we support people, and hopefully learning some valuable lessons along the way. We still haven’t figured it all out, but somehow he has. His inability to listen, consider and perhaps learn is staggering, and I fear for the people who may one day live in the building.

Then there’s The Mount Community Centre in Peterborough. Through a combination of leadership and collaboration, this property is being developed with about 70 market rate and affordable units; two of which will house a total of five people who have a developmental disability.

Those five people are supported by Shared Dreams, a parent-led organization that has partnered with The Mount. This group is also invested in wanting good lives for the people who will live there, but there’s a sense of outreach, collaboration, and a willingness to adjust, learn, and evolve, even before anyone lives there.

They know there’s a possibility of failure and that the people who will live there run the risk of being labelled “those people who live over there”, but that’s why they want to listen and learn from the lived experience and mistakes of others.

They know they’ll still make mistakes and the people supported may not want to live there forever, or even for long, but they’re committed to supporting lives of independence, discovery, and belonging for those who wish to live there, and so I am hopeful for the people who will call The Mount home.

Chris Beesley, Community Living Ontario