Dear Mr. Hartman – A Dream of Community

A few nights ago, I had a dream about founding a neighborhood, a true community for people with disabilities and without, with varying incomes, people with children and without, with pets and without. There were on-site stores, pharmacies, a farmers market… it was a community in so many senses of the word. But first, let me back up a minute and explain what probably led to this dream.

Back when I was in high school, my sole ambition in life was to be on Broadway. If I wasn’t in class, I was on stage – singing, dancing, acting. Not only was I active in the fall play and the spring musical, but I also competed in speech/drama tournaments across the state, one-act play, I went out for community theatre. I ate, slept, and breathed the theatre. I pushed myself so hard, I often forgot to eat or sleep when preparing for roles. A lot of my bad habits in not taking care of myself began back then. Anyway, to help me in studying all aspects of the theatre, one of the electives I took in high school was drafting and design. I figured an architecture and blue print class would be helpful in learning about designing sets for the stage.

I loved the design projects we had to do. Sure, it was only high school, so it wasn’t like we actually designed any houses or sets that were actually built, but it was fun. Long after high school was over (and long after the first blow out of my knee and the onset of osteoarthritis that was the first death knell for my Broadway dreams) I still played around with designing houses and buildings.

Not too long ago, I was contemplating what exactly my housing needs would be when the inevitable day came that my son would move out. I depend on him much more than he depends on me. It is a fact of life that the chicks must leave the roost eventually. I found a free design program online and started playing around. I played with a studio-type house, since the dogs and I mostly stay holed up in my master suite (though it is admittedly on the large side).  My doodles brought about something like this:

dream-house-floorplan-updated

Except where the couch is shown, I pictured a Murphy bed, something like this (please note the mechanism comes down and goes back up with the touch of a button. There is no heavy lifting or straining involved):

tango-sectional

I don’t see the point in having several TVs and several rooms when I already stay pretty much in one room. Good thermal room darkening curtains would ensure my privacy from any prying eyes, and also save on my bills. Also, if I had a small house like this, I could forgo an expensive central heat/air conditioning unit and use something more along the lines of an electric unit similar to what is used in Europe or Asia to both heat and cool the home. I rarely use the heat in the winter, anyway. I was thinking this single unit could be made of concrete block, which can be insulated quite well if built correctly. One could even put in a small fireplace or area for a small pellet stove in one corner for use in winter in case of a power outage in cold weather.

A home such as this would be relatively inexpensive to build – probably under $50,000. It would cost even less if one were to build similar houses in an area at once.  Of course, in my situation, it might as well be $50 Million. I don’t even have $50.00 to spare right now, or even $5.  But it got me thinking:  San Antonio, TX, is home to many forward thinking ideas when it comes to disabilities. True, most of them are concentrated on children.  Mr. Gordon Hartman has created the fantastic Morgan’s Wonderland – an amusement park created specifically with people with disabilities of all kinds in mind, and is in the process of creating a water park designed specifically around the needs of people with disabilities.  My son and I both have spent hours at Morgan’s Wonderland and greatly enjoyed ourselves there (prior to my disability onset, but when my son’s many health issues were at their height). We both look forward to the opening of the water park, so we thank you, sir!

There has been much talk about the need for people with disabilities to be able to live in the community, not hidden away in nursing homes. There has also been talk about the severe shortage of good, safe, public housing available for people who qualify for Section 8 vouchers (many of whom are also disabled). In many cities, the waiting list to get into public housing is several years! In the mean time, where are people supposed to go? I personally have been experiencing this crunch myself. I can’t wait years on some list for public housing, and I am afraid to move into the only neighborhoods I can afford. There’s a new shooting reported there almost every night.

This leads me back to my dream. I dreamed of a community full of little houses similar to the one I designed. Even though they were all made of concrete block, the outsides were stucco and painted varying desert colors, so they didn’t look like ugly boxes. There were varying models. The lawns outside were low maintenance xeriscapes that were drought-friendly. Some were studios like the one I designed for myself. Some offered more privacy in 1, 2, and 3 bedroom units.  Some had lifts in the bedrooms and bathrooms to assist disabled people in wheelchairs and other mobility assistive devices.   All had fenced in backyards where pets were welcome. For a small fee, a pet waste removal company came to all the houses enrolled in their service twice a month to remove the waste from all the houses where a disabled person lived who could not physically bend to remove the waste.  And all the houses were designed around wide wheelchair- and mobility assistive device- accessible paths that led to a park in the neighborhood. This park had playground equipment that was accessible to both disabled and non-disabled children. And incorporated into the neighborhood were pharmacies, farmer’s markets, clinics (with rotating networks of doctors and therapists who visit as a satellite office), massage therapists, dietitians, etc., in aesthetically pleasing locations that blend into the neighborhood.

And the people who lived in the houses? They were a mixture of people, both disabled and non-disabled, people who qualify for public housing and assisted living vouchers, and private citizens. In my dream, investors similar to Mr. Hartman made a deal with local, state, and federal government to share the costs to create such neighborhoods. Programs would be set up to allow low income people and families who wish to train to work in medical professions who could attend state-sponsored workforce training for such jobs as phlebotomy, CNA, medical assistant, pharmacy assistant, home health aide, etc., those  jobs that would be in demand in this hypothetical mixed use, multipurpose neighborhood. Then, those people that passed the training would qualify to receive a voucher to live in that neighborhood with their families. As their situations slowly improved, the voucher amount would slowly decrease over time, to where the family paid more of the rent themselves.  People with disabilities who are found to be able to work in or outside the home would be set up with DARS counselors to help them find suitable work either in the neighborhood shops or other employers (local/state/national), either on location or even remotely. Skills training can be arranged via DARS and the Workforce Commission, if applicable.  Families with disabled members who did not qualify for housing assistance but who have private insurance or Medicare/SSI/SSDI that paid for home health care could contract to live in the neighborhood and the cost of their in home care would be billed through the neighborhood, which would be fulfilled by the now-trained and certified people who had housing vouchers and lived in the neighborhood, as well.

I know this dream is an oversimplification of things. There are nuances that are much more complicated than what has been expressed here. But the thing is, if people put their heads together. If people who actually care about the lives of the disabled, and the elderly, and those who live in poverty, and who want to stimulate the economy, put their heads together, a community like this would work. What if San Antonio Mayor Ivy Taylor, The Gordon Hartman Family Foundation, the San Antonio Disability Access Office, DARS, Alamo Workforce Solutions, and HUD all got together to make this work? A community like this would get the disabled and elderly who don’t really need to be in nursing homes back into the community, would stimulate the economy, provide much-needed SAFE public housing, and, if it was built in an area of town that had previously been starting to decline, it would also beautify the city. Can San Antonio please show the rest of the world that it is truly inclusive of its disabled citizens? What if communities in other parts of Texas or the U.S. could move forward in their thinking about how people with disabilities can be part of the community, instead of trying to hide us away from the world?

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