The Importance of Having a Home
The importance of having one’s own home is understood by those who fought to close down institutions across British Columbia and supported people with developmental disabilities to move into the community. For the majority of people leaving an institution this meant a group home—a home in a neighbourhood where 4 or 5 people with disabilities lived with a rotating staff schedule. At one time, UNITI partner Semiahmoo House Society (SHS) had 13 group homes, but as we learned that some of the people living in the homes preferred to live more independently, we supported people to move into shared living situations, quite often with staff members from those homes. We currently support people in 5 group homes, and the people living in these homes need the extensive supports that SHS staff members supply. We consider SHS’s group homes to be the homes of the people who live there, and work hard to ensure that this is the reality for them and that they have the rights of anyone else living in their own home.
Many of the people who moved out of SHS’s group homes moved into shared living situations or “home share.” SHS contracts with 66 home share providers to provide homes for 83 people we support. There is a wide range of ways that people can be supported in home shares—from living on their own in a basement suite to living as a member of the family with their own bedroom like other members of the family—but, again, what is of paramount importance is that the home share is considered the person’s home, coming with the same rights (and responsibilities) of anyone else living in their own home.
UNITI’s three partner organizations have also worked together to create affordable and inclusive apartments for people with disabilities and other British Columbians. 21 tenants with developmental disabilities live in Chorus, the 71 rental home apartment we completed in 2016 (the first purpose-built rental apartment completed in over three decades in Surrey). The tenants with disabilities who live in Chorus are supported by SHS staff members and have all the rights and responsibilities of any other tenant living in the apartment building.
Finally, many people SHS supports in our various services still live in their family home with their parents and/or siblings. These families have chosen that their loved one remain at home for a variety of reasons, including ensuring the person has a good life and, unfortunately, the fact that there is not the variety of living options available for people with disabilities as there is for people who do not have disabilities.
UNITI’s philosophy that the housing we own, manage, or coordinate are true homes for the people we support were tested this spring with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. In mid-March, Dr. Bonnie Henry, our Provincial Health Officer, told the citizens of BC to stay at home for the safety of themselves and others. One of the principles that UNITI had established in our COVID-19 response was that “people with disabilities have the same right to safety as all other citizens in BC.” If Dr. Henry was telling BCers to stay at home and reduce the number of contacts with other people, we would shift our services to ensure that happened for the people we support. In SHS group homes, this meant staff members working long shifts without time off to ensure that the people who lived there would not have to interact with numerous staff members. Two staff members even invited people living in group homes to their family home for three months during the crisis. Home share providers shifted their lives to ensure that the people they supported were able to come home to be safe. At Chorus, some tenants supported by SHS decided to go back to their family homes, but the majority hunkered down in their homes like their neighbours (and have done exceptionally well at weathering the storm). And the many families associated with UNITI adjusted their lives to ensure that their loved one with a disability was able to stay safely at home for the duration of the crisis.
The theme that ties together the housing that UNITI creates and supports is the idea that these are the homes of the people who live there—and we strive to ensure that people’s right to have control of their own home is the same as all other British Columbians. The COVID-19 crisis has revealed that not all group homes in BC are truly the homes of the people that live there, as they were not able to go home and stay home when the crisis hit; it has revealed the quality of the home share providers contracted by SHS; it has revealed the extraordinary amount of unpaid work being done by families caring for their loved ones, both before and during the pandemic; and, finally, it has revealed the desperate need for a variety of housing that people with disabilities can call home.
UNITI understands the need and right for people with disabilities to have a place they call home. We are currently developing Harmony, a 91-home affordable and inclusive apartment building, in South Surrey. This apartment will provide more housing options for people with disabilities so they are able to be safe and have as much control over their own lives as the rest of the citizens in this province during ‘normal’ times and during times of crisis.
Doug Tennant, Chief Executive Officer, UNITI
UNITI is the partnership of three affiliated non-profit organizations that have existed for decades. Semiahmoo House Society, a non-profit organization located in Surrey/White Rock, exists to provide quality services and supports to people with disabilities and their families in the community. Peninsula Estates Housing Society provides affordable and inclusive rental housing that reflects the diversity of our community. The Semiahmoo Foundation assures that UNITI has the recognition, relationships and resources to support an inclusive community.