Advocates Say Housing Project Would Institutionalize People With Disabilities

by Alissa Skelton, The Virginian-Pilot/TNS, Via Disability Scoop | June 9, 2021

VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. — Over the past couple of months, a city-supported housing project for people with disabilities has faced heavy criticism for defaulting on a no-interest loan and not getting off the ground quickly enough.

But another movement to kill the residential project known as Vanguard Landing is bubbling under the surface.

Advocates for people with disabilities have encouraged city officials to cut ties with the project. They say creating an isolated housing community in rural Virginia Beach only for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities isn’t the best practice or the type of housing people with disabilities want.

Tonya Milling, executive director of advocacy group The Arc of Virginia, said housing people together based on disabilities is not OK and that national standards have evolved in recent decades.

She also noted a 1999 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that segregating people with disabilities is discriminatory and violates the Americans with Disabilities Act and a 2012 Department of Justice settlement that ordered the state of Virginia to close four of its five institutions for those with disabilities.

Additionally, so organizations can be eligible for Medicaid reimbursements, Milling said the government has established rules that say people with disabilities should receive services in their own homes or in integrated settings — rather than in institutions or other isolated settings.

“Our concern is that any time a service or program isolates people, that it is not inclusive,” Milling said. “Services should be provided to someone as they would for someone without a disability.”

Slated to be built on 75 acres near Princess Anne and Sandbridge roads, Vanguard Landing would be a $40 million residential community for 185 people — 18 and older — with intellectual disabilities.

The city council approved a no-interest $2.9 million loan for the project and the Virginia Beach Development Authority disbursed the money to the organization in 2014.

Earlier this year, though, the auditor found no progress has been made, and Vanguard Landing defaulted on the loan by failing to meet key deadlines stipulated in the loan agreement. The development authority will decide June 15 whether to give the group more time to progress or request that the loan be repaid.

Debra Dear, executive director of the nonprofit organization developing the residential community — also named Vanguard Landing — did not respond to requests for comment.

Had Councilman Michael Berlucchi been a member in 2014, he said he would have raised questions about the concept itself because secluding people in a rural area goes against best practices and state and federal government recommendations.

“Look around the country — are communities like Vanguard Landing being built?” Berlucchi said. “No, they are being closed.”

Berlucchi also questioned why the council supported providing a no-interest loan to Vanguard Landing without a competitive process.

“Imagine what we could have done by sharing those resources with an organization that was established and prepared to serve people with disabilities,” Berlucchi said.

Lynne Seagle, the executive director of Hope House Foundation, said her organization shut down all 14 of its group homes for people with developmental and intellectual disabilities by 1994.

She said the process began in 1984, when the organization asked residents about their hopes and dreams. The residents wanted what many people want: their own home, a job, friends and romance. Now, the organization provides services to 130 clients who primarily live in their own homes without roommates, Seagle said.

Today, she supports meeting people where they want to live, versus housing people with disabilities in large institutions or group homes.

“People we support are much happier, have more friendships, much less of an unemployment problem and have more connections and places to belong,” Seagle said.

Several years ago, Virginia Beach resident Ivy Kennedy and a friend created a Facebook page to oppose the Vanguard Landing project. Kennedy, 42, has cerebral palsy and lives with her husband. A personal care attendant assists her.

She said she enjoys being able to interact with people from all walks of life and feels safer when more people see her living day to day. She doesn’t want to see the return of institutions.

“History has told us that segregation is not equal,” Kennedy said. “Because Vanguard Landing is segregated and people aren’t going to be watching, it seems like it is a breeding ground for abuse.”

© 2021 The Virginian-Pilot
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC

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