It took the turn of a key to make Ivory Porter feel human again.
The key opened the door to his own furnished apartment. The door that shut behind him was on eight years of living in a nursing home.
Porter returned to greater independence, thanks to a federal program that provides subsidies for non-elderly disabled individuals who live in skilled nursing facilities but want to return to the community.
Sitting at a dining table overlooking a plush new couch, he clasped his hands and cried.
"It's like a new beginning," said Porter, 53. "My life is starting fresh."
Porter was selected by the Oak Park Residence Corporation (OPRC) in collaboration with the Illinois Department of Healthcare and Family Services and the Progress Center for Independent Living. The Oak Park Housing Authority, which partners with OPRC, has received 15 housing vouchers to be used to support similar transitions.
According to a federal study, housing a person in the community costs one-third less than the average annual cost of Medicaid spending on nursing home care.
Waiting for Porter when he left the Elmwood Care nursing center in December was a two-bedroom apartment with electronic entry system, accessible bathroom with roll-in shower and accessible kitchen. He also had furniture, appliances, utilities and money for grocery shopping and was able to choose personal assistants who help him get in and out of bed.
The Progress Center helped Porter — who is unable to walk because of a bad back — with the move and to get settled in his new home.
"The program has been very successful," said Art Johnson, home services coordinator for the Progress Center. "People are always calling and saying thanks for the work we've done. This gives them freedom; this gives them life. I have consumers who are very happy once they get back into the swing of things."
Porter is finding the rhythm of his new life. He is excited to cook again, rekindling a love that dates back to when he once owned his own barbecue business. He wants to entertain guests, especially his brothers.
More simply, Porter likes setting his own schedule. He has had hassles in getting Internet service, his prescriptions and finding a new doctor. But being able to solve his own problems is part of the independence he now relishes.
"There are obstacles but they're still not going to discourage me from being here," he said. "I want to be free."