16 Sep 2020 Raising the ROOF: Independent Living for Low-income Residents with Disabilities
Walls may form barriers between the rooms in a home, but sometimes walls and barriers take on new meaning when thoughts turn to independent residential living options for Southwest Floridians with intellectual and developmental disabilities.
The mission of Residential Options of Florida (ROOF) is to overcome such walls and barriers and empower residents to live their best lives in the community by creating homes in which they can live independently.
Sheryl Soukup, the nonprofit organization’s founder and executive director, says the two primary impediments to residents with disabilities having the opportunity to live on their own are affordability and the necessary support services being integrated into their residential options. A third, related issue is knowing how to navigate the complexities of state and federal government programs available to help them.
“As a population, persons with disabilities are generally employed in lower numbers and are low-income earners, so there’s an affordability issue when it comes to housing,” says Ms. Soukup, whose personal passion for the community ROOF serves is rooted in her experience as the mother of an adult child with disabilities. “There are also other very basic barriers that, with the right support services, can be overcome so they can live empowered, independent lives.”
She cites the example of someone with cerebral palsy who uses a wheelchair and who may need assistance with getting out of bed in the mornings and with daily personal routines and transportation. Absent such support services, the person can’t get ready and make it to work, which feeds into the low-income cycle and perpetuates a lack of access to independent living.
ROOF currently operates six three- and four-bedroom homes in Lee, Collier and Charlotte counties with two more under development. “Sometimes our residents will have a live-in professional caregiver, or they will live with housemates, so residents rent their own room in the home,” she explains. Residents can choose their own supportive-living providers as needed, or ROOF can arrange with the appropriate providers in the community. Additionally, the organization works with families who have a loved one who could benefit from its services.
“We pair our housing with case-management so we can help people who want to become more independent and self-sufficient over time,” Ms. Soukup says. “Our case manager works with residents to determine their unmet needs and then connect them to those community resources.”
When it comes to one of the biggest challenges facing individuals with disabilities who aspire to live independently, the organization provides assistance in maneuvering the complexities of available federal and state support programs, particularly Medicaid and the Supplemental Security Income program, a federal safety net for people unable to work because of their disability.
In terms of available state support, Ms. Soukup says there is a very long wait list for services, and that once a person with disabilities manages to secure those services, a Catch-22 kicks in. “If your income or assets rise above $2,000 a month, you are no longer eligible for those services that help you to be able to live and work in the community,” she says.
However, there’s a relief valve ROOF helps its residents access: the state allows program participants to deposit income into special types of savings accounts that help them increase their opportunities for success in life. Such savings reduce the amount of income counted toward the threshold to remain eligible for state support, and the nonprofit helps people understand how to make best use of that process.
Ms. Soukup says, “Some of the programs allow them to save toward a home of their own, or they can use the funds for transportation, education and more vocational training so they can advance in their careers. They can spend their earnings on things that would allow them to become more self-sufficient without losing their eligibility for the state program.”
The outbreak of COVID-19 had a big impact on the residents who live in the ROOF-sponsored homes. “It’s definitely been hard for them,” she says. “Most of our residents are more medically vulnerable than the general population, so a lot of them are choosing to stay isolated longer.”
With all of the anxiety and disruptions caused by the pandemic, Ms. Soukup says the Southwest Florida Community Foundation has been an invaluable steadying presence for ROOF and all of the 2020 Community Impact Grant recipients, beginning with Zoom meetings immediately after the outbreak.
“There was a feeling that we were all part of a tribe supported by the foundation, and we were going to all work together to persevere,” she says. “Moving to a multiyear grant has taken away the anxiety and allowed us to plan and focus on our mission. Fundraising will be tougher, so that gave us a level of security that we can continue moving forward.”
For Southwest Florida’s residents with intellectual and developmental disabilities who dream of living independently, the walls going up on homes to meet their needs is a welcomed site. And the walls coming down that might have once stood in their way is helping them feel much more at home. For more information about Residential Options of Florida, please visit www.flroof.org. Or call (239) 774-7663.
This article is part of a summer series that highlights the vital work of regional recipients of 2020 Community Impact Grants from the Southwest Florida Community Foundation.
About the Southwest Florida Community Foundation
The Southwest Florida Community Foundation, founded in 1976, cultivates regional change for the common good through collective leadership, social innovation and philanthropy to address the evolving community needs in Lee, Collier, Charlotte, Hendry and Glades counties. The Foundation partners with individuals, families and corporations who have created more than 400 philanthropic funds. Thanks to them, the Foundation invested $7.7 million in grants and programs to the community. With assets of $134.9 million, it has provided $85 million in grants and scholarships to the communities it serves since inception. The Foundation is the backbone organization for the regional FutureMakers Coalition and Lee County’s Sustainability Plan. The Southwest Florida Community Foundation’s regional headquarters are now located in the historic ACL Train Depot at Collaboratory in downtown Fort Myers, with a satellite office located in LaBelle (Hendry County). For more information, call 239-274-5900 or visit www.floridacommunity.com