As a teenager, Thomas Benson headlined concerts with his band and aspired to ascend to a big stage. But when he turned 30, he started to crave stability. He slid into the real estate business, buying homes and rehabbing them, and his music ambitions faded into the background.
Then one night, he became suddenly ill. His family rushed him to St. Bernard Hospital, where he descended into a coma caused by diabetes – a disease he didn’t even know he had. Weeks later, he awoke to find his leg amputated and his life forever changed.
He felt shocked, especially after living his life as an abled-bodied man standing over six feet tall. He calls the transition “horrific and nightmarish.”
The vulnerability of living with a disability struck him with an unforgiving forcefulness. With few other options, Thomas moved into a nursing home for long-term care after hospitalization. He felt out of place.
People living with disabilities often face limited options for housing and have no choice but to turn to nursing home placements after hospitalization. According to a 2016 report published by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, over 15% of residents in nursing homes are under 65 years old.
Thomas says he struggled to have his needs met and felt constrained. He was still young and self-sufficient, and he yearned for independence.
Earlier this year, Thomas began renting a condo in the Buena Park neighborhood – just a mile from where he grew up – that was rehabbed to meet his unique needs through an IFF program called Home First.
“I love the location. I love the security,” says Thomas, who adds that he likes that he can request further modifications to his home when he finds he needs to.
“Thomas is exactly the type of person Home First is designed to serve,” says Lisa Williams, IFF’s Director of Universal Access. “There are thousands of people ready to transition out of institutionalized settings – if only an affordable, accessible option existed for them.”
Rental housing built or rehabbed by Home First is designed with three things in mind – accessibility, affordability, and community-integration. So far, Home First has created 182 units of housing across 67 sites throughout Chicago, suburban Cook County, and Peoria. Some are apartments, others are condos. Some are in small three-flats, and others are in medium or large buildings. Logan Square, Hyde Park, and Lakeview are just a few of the neighborhoods where Home First homes have been built.
According to Williams, community-integrated housing that is affordable and accessible can be a resource-intensive process because you have to deal with multiple sites, incorporate special design features that can add to construction costs, and do it all with a complex mix of financing and rental subsidies in order to make it all affordable for people living with disabilities – a disproportionate number of whom have lower incomes.
“Despite all these challenges, this type of housing still beats the cost of long-term institutionalized care – and it provides a much improved quality of life for the individuals living there,” Williams says.
“For everything bad that happens, there is something good that comes out of it,” says Thomas, who has returned to his calling to compose and record music in recent years – something he says he wouldn’t have been able to do without Home First’s stable and secure housing.
“Thank God that this program is available.”