'This is my chance': People with disabilities highlight importance of independent living
N.S. government has promised to move 400 people off wait-list for supported independent living by 2024
When Heidi Gallant moved into her new apartment in the Annapolis Valley, she felt truly at home for the first time.
"There was so much excitement," Gallant said. "And I thought, 'Oh, my goodness, this is my chance to make my mark on the world. This is my chance to go out and do what I love to do, and just live.'"
Before the move, Gallant had been living since 2016 in a small option home for people with disabilities.
She has a form of brain damage that makes it hard for her to remember some things, but she is capable of living with minimal support. She struggled with the lack of independence and self-direction in the small option home.
She blossomed when she was accepted into the provincial government's Independent Living Support program and moved into her own apartment in the community.
'Everything has changed'
"Everything has changed," she said. "It's a beautiful thing to know that when I walk in this apartment, it's mine."
Gallant and many other Nova Scotians with disabilities understand the importance of living independently. But there are 400 people on the list for the support program who are waiting to move out on their own. Some have been on the list for close to 10 years.
Earlier this month, the provincial government promised to clear those 400 people off the wait-list in the next two years. This brought some excitement, but also concerns about how it would be achieved.
The program provides funding for people who are semi-independent and require support to live on their own.
When Gallant first heard she would be moving into her own apartment, she started buying furniture and collecting decorations. Then her funding was diverted and she was forced to wait two years before she could move.
"It took a very bad emotional toll on me and made me feel like I was worthless, that I was not fit for the program, and that I would never get to have my own space," she said.
Gallant said she's worried that others in similar positions will get their hopes up when they hear the department's promise.
Patricia Neves, executive director of Inclusion Nova Scotia, said she was thrilled to hear the announcement, but she would like more information from government.
"[I'm hoping for] an implementation plan that shows how they're going to accomplish it, whether that is hiring more people to facilitate the moves and to work with people ... and a plan for how they're going to build or renovate homes," Neves said.
Last year, 86 people moved off the wait-list and into independent living as part of the program. That was almost twice as many — 44 — as the previous year.
In 2018/2019, there were only 29 new participants to the program.
This year's budget gave the program an $8.8-million boost. Another $17 million is expected next year.
Minister of Community Services Karla MacFarlane said the increased funding will help people transition to independent living, but didn't offer details.
"We have to remember that these discussions are happening with the service providers within our communities in Nova Scotia and with professionals and with the caseworkers," she said. "I have a lot of faith in them and trust that the plan is going to work."
MacFarlane said her department will be looking at both new buildings, and renovations to existing buildings, but she said the housing crisis is "always on her mind."
Neves said the time it has taken to phase out one of the smallest adult institutions in the province makes her concerned about the government's capacity.
The closure of Harbourside Lodge in Yarmouth was announced in 2020, but it is not complete.
"That was 27 people ... and they haven't moved all of those people yet," Neves said. "So our concern is if they can't move 27 people in 18 months, how will they move 400 people in two years?"
Claire McNeil, a lawyer with the Disability Rights Coalition, said the independent living support program is just one of a list of programs under the umbrella of the Disability Support Program.
According to 2021 numbers from the Department of Community Services, there are 1,691 people on the Disability Support Program service request list.
"They say they're going to eliminate the wait-list, but that's a little misleading," said McNeil, referring to the removal of 400 people from a much longer list.
Chantel Meister is moving from a small option home in Halifax into her own apartment as part of the program.
She said the staff and fellow residents in the home were like family, but having a curfew, not being allowed to have friends over and having to ask permission to use certain items, like knives, took a toll.
She works at Cineplex, studies at Mount Saint Vincent University and is a member of a swim team. She also has autism and learning disabilities.
Meister said she loves her new place. She wants to see other people have the same opportunity, and for the government to keep its promise.
"It's a home," she said. "There shouldn't be wait lists like this ... just because they have a disability doesn't mean that they aren't able to live on their own."