Most people want a shot at the American dream of owning a home, but dependency, discrimination and a shortage of housing stand in the way of people with mental and developmental disabilities.
The dream could come true soon for disabled county residents and their families, however, as local and state governments, nonprofit organizations and private industry team up to find solutions.
Yesterday, the Joseph P. Kennedy Jr. Foundation; Arc of Anne Arundel County Inc., a nonprofit organization that supports the mentally retarded; and Fannie Mae, the nation's largest source of home mortgage financing, began Opening Doors -- A Home of Your Own, an initiative aimed at providing disabled county residents with options to buy or rent homes.
Eunice Kennedy Shriver, executive vice president of the Kennedy Foundation, told about 100 advocates and government officials, including County Executive Janet S. Owens, at Historic London Town Gardens in Edgewater that the disabled are entitled to their fair share of housing.
Federal funding cuts and the public's indifference toward the disabled make "the challenge we face today enormous," she said.
With a $78,000 grant from the Kennedy Foundation, which was established in 1946 as an advocacy group for the mentally disabled, the partnership will pool resources to help the mentally disabled rent or own homes and to understand their housing rights under federal Section 8 housing provisions. The alliance will also press for changes in government and private funding to promote homeownership and rental opportunities.
As part of the plan, Fannie Mae will offer its HomeChoice mortgage loans at market rates through Provident Bank of Maryland to disabled people with low to moderate incomes.
David K. Elam, vice president of housing and community development at Fannie Mae, said Fannie Mae is proud to be "taking a bolder step and making a large commitment" to increase low-cost housing opportunities for people with special needs.
The partnership is also aiming to give the mentally disabled choices so that they can live independently. "This project is about self-determination," said Joy M. Savage, director of housing development for the Arc. "It's all about them making a choice" when they own or rent their homes, she said.
Arc and Fannie Mae will work with seven partners to help the disabled find transportation and live-in caretakers if needed and will plan their finances for self-sufficient living.
Megan McVea, 30, who uses a wheelchair, rents an apartment in Glen Burnie but is looking forward to working with Opening Doors so that she can own her own home.
"I can decorate [my home)," she said, and it will be "all mine."
"I can cook, clean, drive and pay my own bills," she said.
Kate Rollason, executive director of the Arc of Anne Arundel County, said Opening Doors has helped 51 people earn housing vouchers, which can be used toward rental and housing costs, and that 24 people are waiting for approval for vouchers.
Officials praised the partnership as a state and national model. "This will put [the county] on the map for providing initiatives for people with disabilities so they can enjoy the magnificent benefits and opportunities this state has to offer," Owens said.
Other agencies in the partnership include the federally funded Maryland Developmental Disabilities Council, the Housing Commission of Anne Arundel County, the Maryland Center for Community Development and the state's Waiting List, a $500,000 program of loan guarantees to give the disabled access to the technology and equipment they need to get jobs and maintain independence.
The new partnership isn't intended to make the disabled "special," Rollason said. "We're changing the system so people with cognitive disabilities have access to things everyone else has access to," she said.
"This is not a cause for pity," said Shriver, "but one for individuals with dreams and a future."