Darla Helt, executive Director of PEACE NW, is on a mission: To improve access to appropriate independent housing for adults with I/DD in Washington state, and help them realize the life they want.
Since 1994, Helt has managed programs for those with disabilities and their families. Too often she saw families frustrated by a lack of access to the right information and the right people. She saw families in need of a better way to navigate the system and create lasting housing solutions … especially as the parents (often the primary caregivers) aged.
People with I/DD should be able to grieve for their mother ... without losing their home, their caregiver, and their best friend, too.
“Creating a stable home that supports an independent life is vital for adults with I/DD,” she says, “especially as their parents age and ultimately can’t care for them any longer. People with I/DD should be able to grieve their mother … without losing their home, their caregiver, and their best friend at the same time.”
To that end, Helt co-founded PEACE NW (which stands for People Empowered and Communities Enhanced) in 2016, based in southwest Washington state. This year, PEACE NW joined forces with Partners4Housing, a partnership that enables them to offer access to P4H’s Roommate Matching Pool.
“Housing access for adults with I/DD has always been a challenge,” Helt explains. “Inventory is low, rents are ridiculous, especially for people on fixed incomes, and then there’s the expense of hiring caregivers.”
Finding support at the state level is a huge challenge in Washington state. “Our state is not very well funded in supporting adults with I/DD,” Helt says, noting that the current programs are expensive and outdated.
“Expectations have changed dramatically since the ‘70s when these programs were first put in place, and the state has not kept up with adult services and the way school programs have changed and adapted. Now individuals have different expectations and goals upon graduation."
She believes one way to access the inventory of appropriate housing is through family-created shared households. And that’s where the Roommate Matching Pool comes in.
“Think of the existing state and federal programs like a partially complete toolbox. There’s a hammer or a saw, but no nails or glue to join things together. It's not a complete solution,” she says, noting there is currently no government program that offers roommate matching services.
We are changing the narrative from ‘Here is what we have for you in our menu of services’ to ‘What is meaningful to you and what do you want and need?’
The partnership with P4H, Helt believes, helps solve this critical gap in services, something she knows about first hand. Having two sons with I/DD, she started taking a close look at the existing services and knew she had to somehow get it fixed by the time they were 18.
“At the end of the day, what’s available in a community is what’s available,” she says. “We have families working to create shared living solutions, but finding the right families to partner with is just too hard.”
The roommate pool is scheduled to go live this month at PEACE NW, and they are working closely with the local housing authority to access some set-aside Section 8 vouchers. Their newly hired housing coordinator will work across the spectrum of housing needs to help families realize the dream of an independent, stable home for their Loved One.
The more people of all abilities are integrated successfully into a community, the more solid that community becomes.
To provide even more help for families, PEACE NW is currently working with the Washington State Developmental Disabilities Administration (DDA), creating a guidebook to the different types of housing — not just DDA options, but all options, including shared living. The goal is to help families understand the pros and cons of each type of housing, and how to make the finances work.
“We need to expand the way we think about housing for people with I/DD,” Helt notes. “For example, we use the phrase ‘intentional multi-generational housing’ to refer to a housing option where the choice is to live with family, not simply the default.”
She sees a need for communities to embrace more integrated housing, creating neighborhoods of people with all levels of abilities.
“In Clark County [WA], for example, the university does not have housing. Seniors do not have enough housing. There’s a huge homeless problem. How can we help each other as we look at these housing issues and housing needs?”
While the challenge is great, Helt is hopeful. PEACE NW held an affordable housing conference for people with disabilities in 2019 after a housing research study that was done in 2018. “What came out of that research was a commitment to technology, peer-to-peer support, and advocacy to support more independence for adults with I/DD.
We are empowering people to have the lives and the dreams they want … and deserve.
“As adults, we’re all working toward being prepared for the unknown,” Helt says. “How do we teach and develop our young people to become adults? Certainly, there’s some uniqueness with disabilities, but this relates to all young adults."
Housing is a huge part of this, she believes – that first apartment, that first roommate, the first time they are able to separate from their parents' home and move into their own home.
“Eighty percent of all adults with I/DD live with a parent or family member,” Helt continues. "Of the current 58,000 adults with I/DD in Washington state, only about 4,000 have any kind of residential support ... far below the national average of 70%."
“This is why I believe so strongly in the person-centered approach,” Helt notes. She feels family-created shared housing solutions will help solve the affordable housing crisis for so many. “This is how we are empowering people to have the lives and the dreams they want … and deserve.”
Visit www.peacenw.org to learn more about their work toward making independent living a reality in SW Washington.