A Place to Call Home

By Kevin Cosgrove

It is a core principle of Access Living’s mission that no one should be denied the right to live independently on the basis of one’s disability. Recent months have been especially productive in following that mission through. In April alone, Access Living relocated 20 people out of nursing homes and the total number for the fiscal year will be nearly 100.

Behind every one of those relocations is a compelling story. One of those stories belongs to Michael Grice, who was one of the 20 people whom Access Living helped move into a new home to live independently.

Grice, who uses a power wheelchair and has been involved with disability activism and advocacy for many years, has a bright personality to which one is instantly drawn. He speaks with both passion and compassion and calls himself “a very active person.” He was among the protesters who chained themselves to buses to get wheelchair lifts, he used to swim competitively and he still loves to explore new places and meet new people. “I’m very inquisitive,” Grice said, “I like to do a lot of different things.”

For a number of years, Grice was living on his own in a Hyde Park apartment until health complications led him to reluctantly seek placement in a group home, where he lived for more than a year. After he experienced another round of health complications, he moved to a nursing home. He and the group home staff planned for him to stay at the nursing home for six-to-eight weeks until he recovered and could move back out. But those six-to-eight weeks became almost three years.

Grice’s time at the nursing home grew more and more frustrating as he had to deal with the many short-comings and insufficiencies of the nursing facility.

“You don’t get the proper care that you pay for in a nursing home,” Grice said. “There were times when I had to wait more than an hour to get bathed and dressed. […] There were times when I couldn’t get my [certified nursing assistant – CNA] to get me up on time to go to medical appointments or to come to Access Living or just to visit friends.”

Additionally, Grice said that they repeatedly neglected to honor his requests for dairy-free meals - lactose intolerance was a factor in severe stomach issues he was having. They also wanted to keep constant tabs on where Grice was going and whom he was with, which Grice preferred not to share because, as he said, “that was none of their business.”

Since Grice was already familiar with Access Living through other programs, he was able to determine who to contact to start getting support for moving out.

“As more months went by, and physically, I got my body to be able to travel and my mind ready mentally, I was ready to make the plunge to get out of the nursing home,” Grice said. “So I put all of my energy into getting my body and my mind ready to say ‘I’m going to get involved with Access Living and get another apartment.’”

Grice went through the usual steps of getting referrals and setting up a case with Access Living, but along the way, his case was delayed due to a loss of funding. Grice said that the Access Living staff members with whom he was working remained very supportive and told him not to be discouraged while they worked on finding a solution. During one of his visits to Access Living, a staff member told him in person that his funding was restored. He then promptly enrolled in the Stepping Stones housing reintegration preparation course and got started on locating a new place to live. Things progressed relatively quickly, and soon enough, he was shown an apartment he knew he wanted to call home.

“The apartment was spacious, it was accessible and I just fell in love with the area,” Grice said. “It’s right by the lake, there’s a bus stop outside the building and, there’s a Walgreens. There are a lot of places I can roll to by myself. I’m like, ‘This is what I’ve been waiting for.’”

Grice moved into the apartment on April 30, of this year – the same day that Access Living assisted four other people with move-ins, putting their entire Housing Reintegration staff to work. Grice’s apartment is a North Side unit around the Lakeview neighborhood of Chicago and he has been enjoying his independence and going to a nearby beach whenever possible. He also has been heavily involved with four Access Living outreach groups.

“Mr. Grice is like a permanent fixture here,” said Sheri Blakely, who has been Access Living’s Manager of Housing Reintegration since July, 2013.

Along with Roger Razo – who is one of Access Living’s housing locators - Blakely was instrumental in helping Grice find his apartment and said she has been happy to see him continue to be so involved with Access Living programs after his move.

In addition to working with Grice, the recent high volume of successful housing relocations has meant that Blakely was able to witness many other triumphant stories. These stories include working with someone throughout the process of getting his naturalization papers and accompanying a woman to her new apartment who said, “I’m free now.”

Blakely said her work schedule is very busy and not without it’s challenges, but it is ultimately an immensely rewarding job. “When you see that someone has those keys in their hands and they’ve been told they could not do this,” Blakely said, “It just does something to you. It puts a smile on my face.”

For his part, while he said there is a long way to go, Grice said he will continue to fight for the rights of people who have disabilities for the long haul. He has been advocating for employment initiatives and other bills to bring increased rights and attention to the disability community and he has also been mentoring other people in nursing homes who are taking the steps to get out. He hopes to eventually get work doing either community organizing, outreach, or a position in the media.