When Krystal Nausbaum moved out of her family home nearly two years ago to live with a friend from her high school, she knew it was a big step.
Both women have intellectual disabilities. Although it was her first time on her own, Nausbaum, 27, was comforted by the fact they’d be joined by a third housemate, Maggie Sulc, who’d act not as a caregiver but a mentor — a peer they could learn from and who would lead by example.
This type of living situation is now the subject of a research program, called Friendly Housemates, by Community Living Toronto and Centennial College, that matches people with intellectual disabilities and post-secondary students to live together for one year.
“Maggie helped me a lot with my social life and personal relationships,” said Nausbaum. “I learned way more, doing more household jobs.”
Nausbaum has Down syndrome, but felt in no way limited by it. Instead, she was excited to live “without mom around.”
“When you’re with peers and they mention something to you, you’re way more open to it than when your parents have been harping on you forever,” said Madeleine Greey, Nausbaum’s mother.
“There’s that sense of freedom, that sense that you are independent,” said Matt Poirier of Community Living Toronto, which supports the housing needs of people with intellectual disabilities. “They’re living with a peer, living with an equal. It’s very liberating. They don’t feel like they’re being told to do something. They want to do it.”
The project, funded by a grant from the federal Community and College Social Innovation Fund, allows for up to 10 matches over the next two years.
Lead researcher Marilyn Herie of Centennial said one assumption that’s been turned on its head is that “high functioning” individuals would be better suited for this program.
“Regardless of where a person’s function is at, if they have the necessary supports, they can completely integrate and be successful,” she said.
Student participants live rent-free through the project. Applications are reviewed based on a student’s resumes and references, a formal interview, academic standing and whether their interests align with a potential housemate.
Nausbaum said she learned valuable skills from her housemates, such as how to cook “more complicated” meals.
“Now I like quiche, potatoes and breakfasts wraps,” she said.
Myra Agasen, a Centennial student living with a 30-year-old man with autism, said the arrangement works, but that students must treat their housemate with a disability as equals.
“You just need to be yourself and get to know the person. Don’t look at them differently,” said Agasen, 36
For Greey, the project fulfilled a vision she only ever imagined for her daughter.
“Ever since Krystal was little, I and my husband, her dad, always dreamed she would live life just like everybody else and that she would enjoy independence,” Greey said. “Krystal never ceases to amaze us.”