Special Report: People with developmental disabilities face housing crisis across New York state

BUFFALO, N.Y. (WIVB) — More than 11,000 people with developmental disabilities across the state are on a waiting list for housing. Back in September a lawsuit was filed on behalf of the more than 2,000 people who are faced with that predicament here in Western New York.

The lawsuit claims Governor Cuomo and the state violated their obligations under the Americans with Disabilities Act by not providing sufficient services.

The state responded to that lawsuit last week and filed a motion to dismiss. The situation has remained the same for years, and some caregivers fear it will never change and leave their loved ones in the dark.

“It has been an exhausting process, trying to figure out what’s in Eric’s best interest for his future,” said Brenda Small of Williamsville.

Brenda Small’s son Eric is severely autistic, non-verbal, and has major behavioral issues. Although he’s just 16-years-old, Small thinks about his future a lot.

“We don’t know what would happen if one of us had an accident or passed away, the fear is so real and we are scrambling trying to come up with a solution and it’s just not that easy,” said Small.

In Elma, Tammy Olejniczak is facing a similar situation.

“My daughter was diagnosed with a brain tumor when she was 6 years old and so she needs a tremendous amount of support,” said Tammy Olejniczak of Elma.

Olejniczak says she worries who will care for her daughter one day when she is not able to or no longer around.

“The severity of it is I would have to pass away or become gravely ill for my daughter to be placed immediately and that’s not a situation anyone should be in let alone someone who needs stability and familiarity to live,” said Olejniczak.

Olejniczak says she’s tried to set up residential services for her kids, but they’re on a waiting list along with more than 2 thousand others across Western New York.

People Inc. President and CEO Rhonda Frederick says it’s become a crisis driven system.

“We have so many families that would love to plan for their children and help them in a huge transition into residential services but you can’t. There’s been no development of new opportunities for people so we have a stagnant number for probably the past 6 or 7 years,” said Rhonda Frederick, People Inc. President and CEO.

Frederick says between the Buffalo and Rochester area People Inc. has almost 140 group homes, but it’s not nearly enough.

“We get calls constantly our own internal wait list of people is about 400,” said Frederick.

Frederick says there’s also a wait list for other services like day programs and respite care.

“We have about 20 different day programs throughout the region and we have a wait list upwards of 40- 50 people waiting to come in,” said Frederick.

People Inc. is just one of about 50 organizations in Western New York. But people like Olejniczak say they’re tried calling several of them but a similar answer has become all too familiar.

“Unfortunately everyone says the same thing it’s not just available we’re sorry there’s a wait list or there’s just not space. and that’s just not right,” said Olejniczak.

News 4 for reached out to the New York state Office for People with Developmental Disabilities. In a statement the agency said it is working to expand residential, day, and respite options and new residential opportunities.  But there’s no indication as to when that might happen.

Assemblyman Mickey Kearns says the housing issue is just not a priority in Albany.

“They’ve sort of put their head in the sand and they’ve looked the other way and they’re taking it on a case by case basis,” said Kearns.

Because the life expectancy of people with disabilities has grown, those people need the services for longer, and that means younger folks who are coming through the system don’t have those opportunities.

Another big piece to this issue is a lack of workers to work inside of group homes and residential settings.

The #BFair2DirectCare campaign is pushing to raise wages for those workers and provide a living wage, because agencies like People Inc. are having a hard time attracting workers and keeping them.

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