In a ballroom in a Beaux Arts landmark building at the Bronx Zoo this week, housing rights for the disabled was on the agenda. The place was packed with the kind of federal, state and non-profit officials and administrators -- and just plain, old working heroes -- who are willing to wade through a dense bureaucracy because in the end it leads to justice.
I know they all have their stories to tell. This one, though, is dedicated to Bryan Greene, General Deputy Assistant Secretary of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development better known as HUD, who sat upfront. For our family HUD made a miracle possible. It approved funding and in turn, permission, for a terrific group home for our young adult son with autism to be opened by the Nassau County AHRC.
And so here's to Secretary Greene. With people like him at the helm we could someday live in a world where disabled individuals get the housing they need every day.
In our family we believe in miracles -- and in thanking people. And so on Tuesday in that exquisite room, at a table located in a distant comfort zone, our son Dan, 22, sat with two of the three developmentally disabled guys who are now his housemates and buddies. In January they all moved into a newly renovated house on Long Island -- a place I call the frat house. Actually it is a beautiful and smartly designed home that could be a model for such endeavors nationwide. And the guys, who are in their 20s and 30s, are all at the age when leaving home and family and striking out on your own -- even if you need lots of staff to help -- is something one yearns to do.
I sat with them and their staff and hoped the plan -- the plan to thank -- would go okay.
The guys -- Dan, Mario and Kirk -- were supposed to listen to Greene's speech and then walk up to the podium. Dan was going to present Greene with one of his works of art, an abstract rendition of an apartment building made with wood, wire, rope and netting. A bit outré, I agree, particularly for a federal agency. But pure Dan.
I worried, which is what mothers of disabled children do.
Would the guys be able to sit through the earlier speeches? Sitting is not their forte. And what would be it like when they got up there? Dan, Mario and Kirk may be some of the most ingenious people I know. But speech is not their forte, either. If any of them said "Thank you General Deputy Assistant Secretary of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development," that might constitute another miracle.
Although, maybe they are on to something. Maybe it doesn't all need to be said.
On Tuesday it didn't. Instead of speaking a lot these young men showed their gratitude with hard-wrought "Hi's," "thank you's," and handshakes. Dan presented Greene with his art work. Kirk emoted with delight as only Kirk can. And Mario, showing great initiative, took the microphone to add the finishing touches of thanks. I guess I knew the guys could do it.
In honor of Dan, Mario and Kirk -- and their spare language which says so much and the fact that they did sit through 50 minutes of speeches -- I am leaving all official long quotes out of this story. I am doing this even though I tell my journalism students that it is quotes that make journalism come alive. In this case, though, it is not necessary.
What is necessary though are more thanks galore. Not merely for the house but for the conference which happened due to a heartfelt collaboration between federal and state agencies to commemorate April as Fair Housing Month. The conference was run by the New York State Division of Human Rights and its Commissioner Galen D. Kirkland in collaboration with HUD.http://dhr.state.ny.us
And so, Commissioner Kirkland is also to be thanked for all he does in general -- and specifically in this case. He did not flinch when one of his Deputy Commissioners -- my husband Jim Mulvaney who is Dan's father -- suggested presenting HUD with a piece of art that might, indeed, have driven Alexander Calder back to the Renaissance.
The staff of the Nassau County Chapter of the AHRC is also to be thanked. All of them. They know how to run group homes where the residents' competence is presumed -- and where the need for young men, included disabled young men, to work and to have fun and to live well is recognized. I haven't been to any of the adult women's homes yet. But I bet they are just as good. Dan, Kirk and Mario were accompanied by Brett Hudson, a great group home manager, who lives in an apartment in the house making it seem ever- so-much more like a family. Helping Hudson was Stephanie Burrus, an AHRC program coordinator - which means she supervises several group homes which is no mean feat. Burrus is actually Hudson's "boss," but on Tuesday she also did the hard work of helping with Dan and his buddies. Why? The answer is simple. She knows how -- and she likes to do it.
The three-day conference, which ends Wednesday, was called: "To Use and Enjoy: Housing Rights for Persons with Disabilities 2010." Secretary Greene began his speech by explaining how HUD had recovered $25,000 for a family who was denied housing because their developmentally disabled daughter had a seizure while they were looking at an apartment. Seizures are, unfortunately, common for individuals with developmental disabilities and Autism. I think this means that we need more medical research and funding for that research -- not more housing discrimination.
You'd be surprised how hard that concept is for many to understand. But Secretary Greene gets it. The New York State Division of Human Rights gets it. The AHRC gets it. As does everyone who attended the conference, which ends Thursday.
As for Dan, Kirk and Mario -- it's 5PM on Tuesday as I write this -- soon they will be eating dinner with their fourth housemate John and a bevy of staffers, all of whom tell me how much they love their work. Later, I imagine, they will go out for a while, maybe for Baskin-Robbins and then shoot a few hoops in the backyard. Later they will watch television in the living room -- ESPN or perhaps the BET Channel, if Kirk's powers of persuasion are with him.
The "frat house," will be in motion. Young men will be living the lives young men should live despite their disabilities. And HUD funding made it happen.
Disclosure: As mentioned above the author's husband is New York State Deputy Commissioner of Human Rights, the agency that held this conference with HUD.