Unhoused People with Disabilities by
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Prompted By Homelessness

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My first-born twin grandchildren have disabilities that makes finding appropriate housing for one of them, now that she is twenty, a difficult challenge. I suppose you could call T unhoused as of this coming May. After reading an article in The Atlantic, The Ones We Sent Away by Jennifer Senior (September 2023), I reflected on my granddaughter’s choices for housing in the future. Senior shares the painful journey of her mother’s younger sister Adele, who was institutionalized in March 1953 at a state hospital when she was 21 months old. Called a “microcephalic idiot” by her pediatrician, Adele spent most of her early life heavily medicated in a house of horrors.

Sadly, many people who need care and supervision end up as part of the homeless population living in the streets.

As these large custodial institutions were closed in the 1980s, communities were supposed to integrate people with disabilities by providing smaller and better housing opportunities. Sadly, many people who needed care and supervision ended up as part of the homeless population living in the streets. Of course, that’s not the future I see for my granddaughter. She is blessed to have parents and family protecting her from this fate. But the decision to place a child elsewhere to live is part of a difficult journey for caring parents, and there are not many great choices available. Senior cites Andrew Solomon’s Far from the Tree, stating that the most common reason given for sending a child away was to spare her siblings from “shame and attention starvation.”

That was hardly what drove my daughter and son-in-law when making the tough decision to send T to a therapeutic school to live when she was sixteen. T was volatile. She broke countless things in their home, including many windows. She never hurt her sisters, but she attacked her parents, especially my daughter. After trying many medications and schooling options, she was creating so much tension, chaos, and fear for her family that a change was necessary. For the past four years, she has lived in Wisconsin, a two hour drive from home. The campus is beautiful, the staff is caring (although turn-over has become a huge problem), she has attended school, and her family visits twice a month.

Unfortunately, she needs to leave there by May. She has aged out of the facility. So where can she go? There are not many good choices in Illinois, which ranks near the bottom in housing its disabled citizens. Good larger institutions where she could live and have activities to give her life happiness, stability, and purpose are largely non-existent or the best ones have long (think years) waiting lists. Group homes do not all provide the loving and consistent care Adele received in the later part of her life. Home is not a choice, as she becomes unhappy and stormy whenever she visits. Right now, my children are scrambling to make the best decision possible from a list of limited options.

In my community, there are many homeless people with disabilities and mental illness. They have to leave their shelters by 8:00 am. I see them panhandling in front of grocery stores and other businesses. Since few people carry cash these days, they may be lucky to find someone who gives them food or a gift card. I see them sitting on the library steps, waiting for the doors to open at 10:00. They will spend their day wandering around, sleeping, using the computers, and in the bathrooms attempting to clean up. Patrons, especially those with young children, are rightfully wary of them. Helping them is hardly part of a librarian’s training.

My heart breaks for those who do not have a place they can call home. And it breaks for T, who needs to find housing soon where she can feel loved, safe, happy, and productive.

Profile photo of Laurie Levy Laurie Levy
Boomer. Educator. Advocate. Eclectic topics: grandkids, special needs, values, aging, loss, & whatever. Author: Terribly Strange and Wonderfully Real.

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Characterizations: moving, well written

Comments

  1. Oh Laurie, I feel some of your pain. My nephew Michael is severely autistic. Since my sister died several years ago – a tragic story you may remember I’ve written about – Michael has been living in a county-run group home and program in Rockville, MD where my sister had been living. Aging out is not an issue and Michael is now 32.

    Thankfully it’s a wonderful placement for him with a compassionate staff and he has bonded with his housemate Scott. Scott’s family is local, as we are not and we cannot visit often. But Scott’s folks visit weekly and have taken Michael under their wing.

    I fervently hope you find a good placement for T.
    ❤️

  2. Betsy Pfau says:

    You describe such a difficult situation, Laurie. I know you and your family want to do what is best for T, but the options, as you describe them, are limited and there is a ticking clock, which makes matters worse. I wish you all the best. I know you will keep us informed.

  3. Jim Willis says:

    Laurie,
    A moving account of a tragic problem in America, and I do feel for these people. My neice was one of them. She was pursuing a PhD at Stanford when her other self took over and the school had to ask her to leave. She chose the streets. Her well-meaning dad refused to believe such a brilliant woman could be so schizophrenic. He believed travel was great therapy, so he gave her money to do it. On the street, however, money just put her in more peril. America seems so dead-set on not really dealing with mental illness in any meaningful way.

  4. Khati Hendry says:

    Your story is unfortunately not unique—options for people with mental disabilities are grossly insufficient, leaving families anguished. You describe the issues eloquently, and I wish the best for T.

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