The feelings attached to these words are as unique as the person hearing them. Generally though, there is agreement that the word “home” stirs feelings of warmth,
welcome, and a sense of belonging in addition to a place of shelter where needs are met in a caring environment versus the word “house” – a physical place of residence providing shelter.
It was with some of these thoughts that I ventured out to visit two of Washington State’s Residential Habilitation Centers (RHC’s) at Fircrest in Shoreline and Rainier in Buckley. Having heard arguments on both sides of the debate – for and against consolidation and closure of these facilities, I wanted to see for myself and form my own opinion. “Are these institutions really homes where people live? Or are they houses where residents are placed with their basic needs met?”
I was particularly struck by the locations of both of these RHC’s. They are both on large parcels of land, beautifully landscaped in picturesque settings, yet notably secluded from their surrounding cities and communities.
At Fircrest, I couldn’t help but notice the age of the brick buildings, the overwhelming impression – cold and impersonal. Of course the large unsightly food, laundry, and garbage carts located outside the front doors of each cottage felt like I was at a hospital versus a community of homes. Rainier on the other hand reminded me of an army base or prison facility behind the gates and fences with its old-style stark white peeling paint and red Spanish tile roofs, and buildings connected by long covered walkways.
I found the facilities at each campus clean and maintained, though they felt cold, archaic, and in great need of modern updates both inside and out. I found it peculiar that décor on both campuses looked like thrift store purchases from many years gone by, curled posters, cheaply framed faded prints, outdated curtains hung on barred windows if at all.
I appreciate the work that the residents perform: sterilizing used Comcast remotes, shredding documents, thrift store duties, and pouring beautiful paving stones. However, the biggest factor I found lacking was the sense of community. I kept pondering, “How will the public ever be able to appreciate the values of equal opportunity, full participation, independence, and economic self-sufficiency for people with developmental disabilities if they’re kept isolated and segregated? When was the last time these adults and youths cuddled with a pet, went on a vacation, saw a school play, or heard the laughter of a child?” How many of them have a sense of personal space with their personal things?
At Fircrest, each living room is arranged with one shared T.V. and generic “Dr’s Office” chairs set around the sparsely decorated walls of the vinyl floor room. Each resident has their own very small bedroom, meagerly furnished with a twin-size bed and dresser, sometimes a chair. Out of the dozen or more bedrooms I visited there, only a meager few appeared personalized in any way. I thought, “Even college dormitories are more appealing than this”. The lack of individuality and personal belongings was disturbing.
To my surprise, I did observe more texture, color, and variety when it came to décor and “home-like” comforts in the Rainier cottages, where 8 residents share two warmly decorated living areas per side with more comfortable furnishings, overstuffed chairs and recliners. I noted that some of the Rainier residents also share larger bedrooms, 2 to a room, comfortably furnished with more attractive décor. Colorful home-style dinnerware adorned Rainier’s tables while residents ate from standard melamine cafeteria dishes at Fircrest.
I couldn’t help but feel sad and discouraged as I left these properties, wondering if the adults and youth were there willingly or if they’d ever been given a choice. When I recall friends’ stories of abuse, rape, and mistreatment at Rainier and then how their lives have taken on meaning and purpose with employment, pets, family members, and a place of personal space and privacy since they finally “escaped”, I am convinced that the RHC’s have outlived their time.
My heart breaks for the severe circumstances that families must face in order to move their loved ones into an institution. Thankfully we have community homes and supports in place today that makes permanent placement in these places unnecessary.
We all recognize the necessity and appropriate place for hospitals to temporarily house those in need of emergent care, stabilization, and treatment. However; a hospital was never intended to replace a home. Similarly, I believe there is a place for Crisis Stabilization units for people with developmental disabilities to be used as temporary placements. However, once the individual is stabilized and supports are reinforced then the individual returns home to their community.
You see, I have a daughter with multiple disabilities, similar to many of the residents in these two facilities. When Jessica was born with Down syndrome and cerebral palsy, I was given the option to place her in an institution where she’d be cared for. As I toured the RHC’s, I kept thinking, “Would Jessica be comfortable enough to call one of these cottages home? Would she be happy with the lack of freedom, lack of choices, and lack of independence? Is she really safer set apart FROM the community in an institutional house or safer AT home IN our local community?”
As I drove away from these RHC’s, these institutional houses, I turned my heart towards the warmth of home. My heart felt lighter as I pondered my daughters, each with her own unique and different abilities – her sense of belonging, her safe place in our home where hugs abound, laughter comes easy, choices are made, freedom is earned and independence is supported and encouraged. “Home Sweet Home” – the words have never meant more.
Written by Joy Caldwell,
Parent and Assistant Coordinator,
King County Parent Coalition
The Arc of King County