Pulling up out the front of the Project Independence development in Latham, there’s no indication that the row of stylish two-storey villas in front of us are anything other than a boutique development for the small family, whose kids are likely to attend the school opposite, with its expanse of playing ovals providing a fantastic open vista.
In truth it’s a new initiative that gives the intellectually disabled the opportunity to seize the great Australian dream—owning their own home. It’s a feat virtually impossible when you rely on the disability pension, until now.
We’re greeted at the door by 57-year-old Lee Leary, one of the new residents. He’s excited to give us a tour of the home he moved into just a week ago. It’s one of three 4 bedroom attached townhouses. Inside, it comprises three secure 1 bedroom + ensuite living spaces, each with a private entry. It also features a guest room and a large shared dining/entertaining area where the 10 residents across the development come together for lunch and dinner prepared by the live-in Resident Coordinator.
Lee’s personal quarters comprise an alcove off the entrance that fits a small couch, a television and shelves stacked with just a fraction of his epic DVD collection; a bedroom, an ensuite, and a large courtyard. It has the look of a newly purchased home—there are no pictures on the walls yet, but there will be, because for the first time in his adult life he can hang what he wants, where he wants, because the place is his.
We’re quickly introduced to his flatmate Luke, who also has self-contained living quarters in the townhouse. The two of them have only lived together for seven days, yet they’ve quickly developed a strong bond—an important aspect of shared living as anyone who lived in a share house during their university days can attest.
“Luke has got these lights strung up at his place,” says Lee. “He’s going to give me some of those so I can decorate my place some more.”
With its full-sized barbecue, chairs and bike, Luke’s courtyard feels like the kind you’d gather in on Australia Day. When we ask him where the esky with beers is, he ducks his head with a bashful grin, and we know it’s something on his to-do list.
Lee’s courtyard, bathed in the late morning sunlight with its resident garden gnome and imitation greenery, is a lovely spot to sit with a cuppa, which is exactly where we spent the morning with Lee, his sister Maritta and Project Independence board member David Hill.
Lee has been in public housing for the past 30 years, spending a large chunk of his disability pension on accommodation. Like all rent money, it felt like dead money. Project Independence consumes 75% of Lee’s pension, but 11% of that is going towards the interest-free mortgage he took out to purchase his slice of this development.
“Buying a home wasn’t something I thought about, because it couldn’t happen. When Maritta came home and told me it could, I had tears coming out of my eyes.”
But it wasn’t all smooth sailing. Not long after making the decision to buy his own place, Lee changed his mind and pulled out.
“I was scared. I thought I couldn’t do it; it was too much responsibility. It was my sister that convinced me to do it. She gave me a push. There was some screaming about it and we both cried. But that’s what a sister is for.”
Maritta nods, and makes a wry face at the memory of those arguments. She stands by them though. “It was important for him to do this. We need to prepare our loved ones in every way to live in an environment without us, and that includes them being financially independent.”
For her, Project Independence is more than a secure future for her brother, if it takes off it could provide a secure future for her son also, who has down syndrome. “The reality is, I’m likely to die first. I don’t want to leave him until I know he has the capability to live without me. That’s what Project Independence gives.”
Like Maritta, who volunteers with Project Independence, and Project Founder Glenn Keys, David was motivated to become involved with the Project Independence board because of his family. David’s son Reece lives in the Project Independence Harrison development.
“The intellectually disabled are more vulnerable than most of society. They’re vulnerable to changes in government social policy and to people who see them as an easy mark to take advantage of. This project helps to reduce that vulnerability by giving them independent living skills and helping them to become financially independent. It’s about choice and control—they’re the key to independence.”
Moving to Project Independence has had its challenges though. During Lee’s time in public housing he was within walking distance to all the necessary facilities. Now he has to learn how to read bus timetables and catch public transport to shops, medical facilities and his art classes.
“It’s part of the normalisation that comes with buying in to the project,” says Hill. “To the best of our ability we want our loved ones to function as anyone else would.”
For Lee, sitting in the courtyard with a coffee, mates around listening to music, is his ideal day, and one made all the sweeter by owning the courtyard he’s sitting in.
“It’s a dream that I didn’t think could come true, but it did. I have my own space, my own freedom. I only answer to myself.”
Isn’t that something we all should have?
Project Independence has another development in the planning and development phase. If you wish to help contribute to this not-for-profit project, please visit their website here.