When Mary Rosen, 74, passes homeless camps in Vancouver, she worries about what will happen to her son after she’s gone.
“It’s pretty shocking to see that and then to live in terror that your child might end up in that sort of situation,” she said.
Her son is 32 years old and has an intellectual disability. Rosen wanted to be close to her son while teaching him how to be independent and live on his own, but finding a place for him was difficult.
Clark County has more than 1,600 adult Developmental Disabilities Administration clients. But there are only 89 units that are specifically for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, according to a 2022 state report.
That’s 18 people for every one unit.
As a result, people who can’t get into one of these units sometimes live in apartments that aren’t specifically for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. But each person needs different kinds of support and accommodations to live on their own, said Darci Ladwig, housing coordinator for PEACE NW, a nonprofit based in Vancouver that works with families to help connect people with disabilities to support and services.
Many people with intellectual or developmental disabilities need to be near a bus line to get to their job or the store. Others may have sensory issues that mean they can’t live in loud neighborhoods. Some require assistance with everyday living.
The availability of suitable homes is further constrained by the county’s lack of affordable housing in general.
“What’s affordable for most people is not affordable for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities because they’re extreme low income,” said Darla Helt, executive director of PEACE NW.
Many adults with disabilities rely exclusively on Supplemental Security Income, which has a monthly maximum of $914 for an individual. The average one-bedroom apartment in Vancouver rents for $1,610 a month, according to the National Low Income Housing Coalition.
“It’s an area of housing that has been really overlooked in the affordable housing movement,” Helt said.
In January, state Rep. Frank Chopp, D-Seattle, introduced House Bill 1628 to increase affordable housing by modifying the state and local real estate excise tax. The bill would have devoted 15 percent of the revenue to grants and loans to housing programs for people with developmental disabilities. But the bill died in committee in April.
Finding affordable housing can also be an issue for parents of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. With many parents being caretakers for their children and needing to miss work for doctor’s or therapy appointments, it can be difficult to hold down a job.
Living in a car
PEACE NW recently helped support a 70-year-old mother living with her 40-year-old daughter in a car. It’s not an unusual situation — Helt said PEACE NW frequently serves clients who are experiencing homelessness. And with most people with intellectual and developmental disabilities living with family members, parents commonly fear where their children will go after they die, Helt said.
The process of finding the right affordable housing for their children can be overwhelming.
Kathy Nichols, 64, was trying to help her son with autism move out of her Vancouver home last year. He receives SSI and works at Walgreens, but his income is still less than $1,000 a month. He also needs support with daily living.
Nichols looked into an adult care home in Vancouver, but the starting rent was $4,750.
She would sit at her computer with her son, trying to navigate government websites and fill out housing assistance forms. But her husband of almost 34 years, who had recently died, was the one who was good with computers.
“Besides trying to grieve and help my son and help myself, it was a very daunting task,” she said.
Rosen understands how much paperwork there can be in this process. Inside her home, she picked up a stack of about five folders full of papers. “These are current projects,” Rosen said about the paperwork for her son’s various services. She pointed to a large box behind her packed tight with more folders. “Those are past ones.”
A new program
After informally helping several parents find housing for their children, in January 2022 staff of PEACE NW officially started a program to help people with intellectual and developmental disabilities find permanent housing.
“We really just meet people where they are and help them navigate through the different systems and supports that they already might have or might need in order to live independently,” said Ladwig, the PEACE NW housing coordinator.
The program’s website has information on everything from finding good roommates to getting along with landlords. Ladwig also works one-on-one with people to help them find the right housing. So far, she’s helped 14 people move out of their families’ homes and into various housing options.
Both Nichols and Rosen say they’re grateful for the work Ladwig does. With her help, their sons recently moved into an apartment together as roommates. Both are doing well on their own.
With a state grant, PEACE NW is in the process of buying its first home in Clark County. It will allow people with intellectual and developmental disabilities to live together and share expenses, Helt said. The nonprofit hopes to purchase more homes.
Although 14 people have been housed, PEACE NW is in the process of helping more than 50 others. The process for getting someone a Section 8 housing voucher may take months, Helt said.
“There is such a bigger need than what we’re doing,” Ladwig said.
But PEACE NW is trying to make more people aware of the need for affordable housing for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. It held an affordable housing conference for individuals with disabilities in Clark County and meets with groups around the state to promote change.
“On a state level and on a local level, we’re doing a lot to talk about this so that people know, yes — include us at the table,” Helt said.
This story was made possible by Community Funded Journalism, a project from The Columbian and the Local Media Foundation. Top donors include the Ed and Dollie Lynch Fund, Patricia, David and Jacob Nierenberg, Connie and Lee Kearney, Steve and Jan Oliva, The Cowlitz Tribal Foundation and the Mason E. Nolan Charitable Fund. The Columbian controls all content. For more information, visit columbian.com/cfj.