Finding a roommate who’s a good fit is a relief for most of us. For people with intellectual disabilities, it could be a lifeline — an opportunity for more inclusion in society. “Friendly Housemates” is a joint program being developed by Centennial College researchers and Community Living Toronto to make that lifeline available to more people.
The idea of Friendly Housemates is to pair people with an intellectual disability and undergraduate students in shared living arrangements. The students get free accommodation, a bursary and a guaranteed summer job in exchange for their role in helping their “friendly housemate” to live a life that’s more integrated with society and more independent, but still in a secure and supportive environment.
The project is operating with a grant from the Community and College Social Innovation Fund set up by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council.
“It’s as normal a housemates relationship as possible,” principal investigator Marilyn Herie said in an interview. “[The students] are not providing personal care or support. You have a roommate or housemate, you watch TV together, you might make proper meals, you might listen to music or share a coffee. The idea is, if there is an emergency, there is someone else in the house,” said Herie, dean of learning, teaching and scholarship at Centennial College.
People with an intellectual disability and their families sometimes worry group homes do not give their residents the opportunity to live life as independently as they’re capable of. “The families are saying we have worked so hard to create full citizenship for this individual, and they are not sure they’ll be supported in that in a group home.”
The SSHRC grant, awarded in 2015, is building on a pilot project that provided some insight into what works and what doesn’t. In theory, for example, any student could be a friendly housemate, but in practice, families prefer human-services students. The Social Innovation project will delve deeper, using semi-structured interviews to identify best practices and what resources are needed to make friendly housemates a viable housing option. It may be possible to replicate the model for people with medical disabilities or the elderly.
Setting up the households has to be done carefully. There are vulnerabilities on both sides. Community Living Toronto helps identify likely housemate candidates from among its membership and also vets the students who apply. Students must have a good grade point average and are asked about their reasons for applying and their perspectives on people with disabilities. Community Living also ensures the students are prepared with some general training (first aid, CPR, an orientation session) and by offering coaches and drop ins where they can come to discuss any issues that arise they need help with.