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Two advocacy groups for individuals with mental illness and disabilities are seeking more flexible rules for state housing grants.
Monday, May 20, 2013
Virginia leaders have spent far more time talking about refocusing the state’s behavioral health system to emphasize community-based services than actually implementing those reforms.
Accessible housing is central to achieving this transformation. Mental health advocates have long sought greater flexibility for state housing grants used last year by 6,000 disabled and elderly Virginians, a majority with a physical or mental impairment.
The grants are primarily funded by the commonwealth, with localities picking up 20 percent of the cost. State law does not prohibit use of the grants for independent living arrangements such as rental assistance for apartments, but regulations implemented by the Virginia Department of Social Services restrict use of the subsidies to assisted living centers and adult foster care homes.
Quality Trust, an advocacy group for individuals with disabilities, and the Virginia chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness filed a complaint recently with the civil rights office of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services maintaining that the rules violate the Americans with Disabilities Act.
The groups argue correctly that the regulations discriminate against individuals with disabilities or mental illness by forcing them into segregated and restricted institutional living arrangements that fray family relationships and social interactions and make it difficult for them to hold a job or participate in volunteer work.
The advocacy groups filing the complaint say they are not seeking to expand the housing grant program.
They simply want recipients to have more options. They point to a 2008 study by state officials that concluded grant recipients capable of living independently could do so with no increased cost to taxpayers, and perhaps even a small savings per person.
Nevertheless, it’s realistic to anticipate that more people would apply for the grants if they could be used for apartments and not just institutional beds. The 2008 study ultimately resulted in no action in part because of the potential for increased costs.
But the decision to do nothing has allowed problems with the existing grant program to fester. Only 20 localities in Virginia have adult foster care homes. Although about 300 assisted living facilities accept housing grant recipients, those facilities are concentrated in far Southwest Virginia, Richmond and Portsmouth, leaving large swaths of the state underserved.
Worse, the failure to act leaves no good options for men and women who don’t want to spend the rest of their lives isolated and dependent on others. Virginia leaders say they favor more enlightened treatment. They can put their words into action by revising state rules for housing grants rather than waiting for a federal judge to force that change.
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