"Encourage your hopes, not your fears."
For years now, this bumper sticker has been on my family's refrigerator. Hope doesn't always come easy when your triplet babies are born prematurely, fragile with health problems and disabling conditions. Fear can pop up whenever you turn around: When they are babies — "Can I do this?" Then as they grow older — "What will the future hold?"
The realities for those with disabling conditions are sobering: Unemployment averages about 40 percent in Illinois; 70 percent if one is blind. Persons with disabilities represent two-thirds of those living in long-term poverty. Abject poverty and institutionalization are certainly not relics of previous times.
Due to their circumstances, two of our 25-year-old children live at home with us. Hearing about the proposed housing plan for the old Comcast building, we wondered — could our adult children someday live there? Because of stamina and health issues, they may not have the capability to sustain full-time employment. However, with support, they can and do live full lives.
Of course, those with disabilities are not the only ones with low wages — we have teacher assistants, lunchroom monitors, nurses' aides, caregivers, grocery baggers (some of whom are OPRF special education graduates) and underemployed returning veterans. While these people may slip below the radar in this village of Hemingway and Wright, they are indeed an integral part of the tapestry of our community.
As I read the discussion about the proposed housing plan for the old Comcast building, I see fear speaking — fear that "they" will pull down "our" community. The neighborhoods and children will be hurt, and housing values will fall. Individually addressing these concerns can be helpful. First, Interfaith Housing Development Corp., the Oak Park Housing Authority and Catholic Charities are reputable organizations with solid histories. The Oak Park Housing Authority website has a very detailed frequently asked questions section, addressing many potential concerns. The Interfaith Housing Development Corp. website provides examples of successful existing supported buildings.
Second, the proposed housing is permanent housing, not transitional or halfway housing. Third, tenants are screened with credit and criminal background checks, and tenants who are disruptive will be evicted. Fourth, as in all neighborhoods, our resident beat officers are always willing to work with the community to keep neighborhoods safe. Fifth, if we want to reduce illicit drug use, closing our high school campus, not allowing alcohol at teen parties and exploring ways to reduce demand by using our youth services are likely to have the greatest impact.
We Oak Parkers have a legacy of courage and creativity in building the diverse, vibrant community we call home. People with disabilities and challenging life situations are a part of, and yes, enhance this diversity. Frankly, the line between "us" and "them" is a blurred one — an illness, an injury, a job loss, the death of a loved one or plain-old aging could put anyone into a difficult situation. Let's not let uninformed fear govern our decisions. Instead, let's choose hope and work together for Oak Park.
Janet and Rich Gayes are Oak Park residents.
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