It was only a few decades ago that people with I/DD were, more often than not, hidden behind closed doors, not allowed to go to school, and banned from having a typical life. Fortunately, this attitude has largely changed, yet systemic barriers to opportunities for meaningful community inclusion are still prominent. Although a friend, family member or neighbor with I/DD may not be intentionally hidden away and excluded, the experience of isolation and loneliness for themselves and their families is not uncommon.
The Autism Housing Network and Neuro-Inclusive Housing Solutions created the Empowering Communities Initiative (ECI) to intentionally collect marketplace data in order to identify the strengths, barriers, and opportunities to meet the unique local demand for neuro-inclusive residential options in communities across the country.
Laradon recognized a major effort was needed in Denver to increase housing options for the neurodiverse population and prevent individuals with intellectual/developmental disabilities from being displaced from their community of support, forcefully institutionalized, or rendered homeless. They jumpstarted the ECI process by working together with the Autism Housing Network, Neuro-Inclusive Housing Solutions, and nine other local organizations. “Given the importance of affordable housing to the social wellbeing of individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities, Laradon reached out to fellow non-profits to commission an affordable housing study specific to the I/DD community in Denver. They spoke and we listened. The result is distilled in the pages that follow,” said Laradon CEO Doug McNeill.
What is the Empowering Communities Initiative (ECI)?
Using the model illustrated here, The ECI team educated Denver families on the broad array of residential options, then assessed their needs and preferences with a survey. The educational presentations can be viewed here. The survey data was then presented to local leaders in an interactive workshop designed to identify critical factors for housing industry leaders, community-based organizations, policymakers and service providers to meet demand. The local leaders workshop recording can be viewed here.
After gathering data from stakeholders and local leaders, a neurodiverse housing & community development market analysis specific to Denver was created to provide this missing research and economic data. This market analysis will help influence housing development, financial institutions, as well as state and federal policy to increase housing options and improve quality of life for all of Denver’s neurodiverse citizens. This ECI process allows adults with I/DD, their loved ones and communities to understand local demand and take the future into their own hands.
For individuals with intellectual or developmental disabilities (I/DD), there is an extreme shortage of affordable, accessible housing and access to the supports needed to thrive. We need to understand not only the barriers to access, but also the preferences of people with neurodiversities in order to plan for the future. Through that knowledge, Denver leaders can take action to increase neuro-inclusive housing. Data should drive policy and funding solutions.
Barriers to Community & Friendship in Denver
The barriers people with I/DD face in connecting and interacting with their community are not simply due to physical inaccessibility, but the need for community members and neuro-inclusive opportunities to understand and accommodate the social challenges people with I/DD face. Besides transportation which largely falls on the shoulders of family caregivers, the next two largest reasons for not engaging with the community was lack of friends or not being able to find things to do without caregivers.
Reflecting on the barriers to community engagement indicating that 36% of respondents did not have any friends, it is not surprising that adults with I/DD are often isolated and lonely. Only 15% reported they see their friends as often as they wanted. Not only do people with I/DD not have access to social capital like their neurotypical peers, their cognitive or social impairments due to I/DD make it difficult for them to complete the many steps and nuances it takes to build relationships.
Market Preferences for Stakeholders in Denver
The disability rights movement continues to advocate for people with I/DD to have more choice and control over their lives. Emerging residential solutions should seek to shift away from “placement” of people with I/DD into “the next empty bed,” towards person-centered planning in order for people with I/DD to access the home and support they need to be part of their preferred places and spaces.
Neuro-inclusive housing solutions can provide physical and supportive amenities appealing to individuals with I/DD, but also benefiting people without disabilities. When the housing industry responds to “accessible housing” or “housing for people with disabilities”, their understanding is often tied to ADA compliance in making units accessible for those with physical or sensory disabilities. In order for housing to be more accessible for people with I/DD, it is important to consider cognitive accessibility needs as well. When asked about 12 different neuro-inclusive design features, there was high indication for incorporation of nearly all features presented.
Additionally, housing can include “supportive amenities” which are tied to the property and may be included in housing costs. In neurotypical multi-family or mixed-use housing, it is becoming more and more popular to include amenities such as laundry services, pet parks or care, communal dining, and/or other amenities that seek to connect residents or make life more convenient as part of the property.
When considering the addition of supportive amenities, it is important to remember that these amenities are connected to a property and are not individualized LTSS. Supportive amenities should be available to all residents, with or without disabilities, and could be open or closed to the greater community. Supportive amenities can be provided by partnerships with community-based organizations, not-for-profit organizations associated with a property management company, pods of people living in scattered state homes within walking distance, or just for a single individual and accessory dwelling on their families property. Supportive amenities are not a substitute or to replace LTSS, but an enhancement which is outside of the typical individualized services are designed to provide. Supportive amenities benefit more than just one individual to decrease loneliness, increase life skills, increase engagement with the greater community, etc. The purpose of supportive amenities is to make life easier or more accessible. There is strong support and evidence for the need of supportive amenities, especially for those who may not be able to access LTSS and are at high risk of homelessness.
When results of the Residential Needs & Preferences Survey were taken to local industry leadership and the professional community, the top systemic barriers were ranked as the most pressing:
- Not all people with I/DD can access services at the needed funding level to live in the home of their choice independently
- People with I/DD must be institutionalized or homeless to access vouchers- need assistance targeted for people with I/DD
- Education: Families are overwhelmed and having difficulty future planning
- Mismatch definitions: Housing industry and support service industry do not “speak the same language”
- Cannot find housing they can afford in a safe location
Additionally, participants were then asked to prioritize the top opportunities to meet the demand. The following are the top opportunities that local leaders believed are attainable for next steps to increase residential options for people with I/DD in Denver County:
- Prioritize people with I/DD for affordable housing funding streams
- Legislative ask: Tie a housing subsidy with Medicaid HCBS waiver services
- Strategic plan to engage developers and landlords
- Streamlining eligibility and documentation for currently disconnected programs
- Series of workshops like this one to drill down on future needs
The visibility of the affordable housing crisis for individuals with I/DD needs to be raised and greater neuro-inclusive community development is necessary. This market analysis focused on the needs of residents with I/DD offers critical data to reach this goal, offering guidance on projected population size, urgency of aging caregivers, preferences of future residential options, barriers as well as opportunities to meet the demand.
There is no specific affordable housing program that targets the needs of people with I/DD despite being at high risk of involuntary displacement or homelessness. The Steering Committee of Inclusive Housing Denver came together because they know the value and potential of neurodiverse relationships and community building; yet, they also see the isolation, heartbreak, and traumatic crisis when those with I/DD cannot access affordable, accessible housing.
Denver County should not only prioritize this population across existing housing assistance programs, but also consider filling neurodiverse-inclusive housing gaps where existing programs not designed for people with I/DD just cannot meet their accessibility needs.
To request a meeting for conducting an Empowering Communities Initiative in your local area, please contact Christina at [email protected].
The Autism Housing Network completed another Empowering Communities Initiative in Colorado. Learn about the ECI for Arapahoe County, Douglas County, and the City of Aurora or read the full report.