Sharing a Passion for Shared Living: The Jewish Family and Children’s Services Independent Living Program

 August 1, 2013
Posted by M&LAdmin4

Thursday, August 1st,  2013

It is no secret that the staff of M&L Special Needs Planning, LLC, is passionate about housing. To be more precise, we are passionate about housing for individuals with disabilities.

There are a number of reasons why we feel so strongly about this issue; first of all, we are becoming increasingly aware of and increasingly concerned about the current housing crisis that faces adults with disabilities. No one can deny that individuals with disabilities are facing a housing shortage, which will only worsen as more individuals with disabilities age into adulthood.

We are also driven by the upcoming launch of our Independent Living Program and Housing Project database, which will occur late summer/early fall. To prepare for this launch, we are immersing ourselves in housing information; we strive to educate our families so that they can make informed decisions as to what is best for their family member with special needs.

The third reason is quite personal. M&L founder Maedi Tanham Carney and her daughter Ellie are currently experiencing their own housing journey; they are in the process of searching for a program that will suit the needs of the family as a whole, and will also help Ellie to realize her dreams. Maedi, just like any parent, wants her daughter to grow, and thrive, and be happy and live; she wants her to have friends and colleagues, to socialize, and to have a healthy, happy, successful, independent future. Like all parents, Maedi wants Ellie to “have it all.” As Maedi is a parent of a child with special needs, she realizes that Ellie might require a little extra support to achieve her goals and to realize independence – and that is where these housing and independent living programs come in. These programs help individuals with disabilities live the way they dream of living, on their own terms, in their own space. They help them “have it all.” That, more than anything else, is the reason we are passionate about housing – we want Ellie, and every individual with a disability, to have it all.

Today, we will talk about an individual and her housing model that just might help individuals with disabilities realize their dreams for the future, and find their “all”: Doreen Cummings, and the Jewish Family and Children’s Services Creative/Shared Living Housing Model.

Jewish Family & Children’s Services – The Organization

The Jewish Family and Children’s Services (JF&CS) organization has been offering human services to families in the Greater Boston area for more than 150 years. This organization, which is one of the largest non-profits in the United States, is committed to “helping people of all faiths, races and ages with the challenges of life.” As well as offering services to individuals with disabilities, the organization – which serves 17,000+ annually through more than 35 programs – provides services and supports to seniors, parents, children and the community.

The services offered to individuals with disabilities and mental illnesses are incredibly comprehensive; through their Disability Resource Network, the organization educates and provides referrals for individuals with disabilities, as well as offering consultation services that help these individuals connect with programs and other services located in the community. They offer employment and day programs, help families plan for the future of their children with special needs, and help families plan and fund Special Needs Trusts.

Their housing services and supports are also extensive. Through their Small Group Living model, (funded by Disability Determination Services) the organization provides a financially inclusive living option for individuals with disabilities and/or mental illness. Individuals with similar needs live in groups of three or four, with supports such as personal care, healthcare coordination, social/recreation activities, daily task assistance, and supportive counseling (just to name a few) being provided by JF&CS staff. The monthly program fee covers the cost of these services, as well as the cost of accommodations and meals. Under this program, the organization runs a number of small group living homes and apartments in a larger apartment complex.

The bulk of the housing supports provided by JF&CS fell under the Small Group Living Model from the 80’s until 2010, when JF&CS employee Doreen Cummings transferred from her position working with JF&CS’ day program to a position offering housing services and supports. Doreen envisioned a housing model that was less restrictive and more financially feasible than the Small Group Living model. The Collaborative/Shared Living housing model was born from this vision, fueled by the passion and determination that Doreen brings to the job every day.

JF&CS Creative/Shared Living Housing Model

The Collaborative/Shared Living housing model is designed to help adults with disabilities achieve affordable, independent living – as is stated in the program brochures, “Our vision is to offer a program that, like college for typically developing young adults, is a temporary private expense for families and that, during that time, state and federal housing benefits can be secured so that long term care (staffing/rent) can be covered.” Doreen’s intention is to help families help their family members with special needs live in the “now”, rather than wait for a time when these individuals receive housing grants and funding.

“Our goal is for our clients to be happier now – long term happiness is what we want [for our clients] and we are not willing to wait,” explains Doreen.

Under this model, residents (individuals with mild to moderate disabilities) have a bedroom in a large house; the residents share staffing, and all common areas i.e. bathroom, laundry, kitchen, etc. The staff to client ratio is 1:8/9, and 2:12/14 in the newer homes being opened by Doreen. Staff are scheduled from 3:30 p.m. to 10:30 p.m., Monday to Friday, and from 9:00 a.m. to 11:00 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday. The models also include 2 staff that live in a suite in the house, and offer emergency, over night and morning support.

In terms of household dynamics, residents of the JF&CS residents make decisions related to household policy together. Guided by a staff person, the residents will make decisions such as chore allotment, menu choices, weekend activities, quiet hours, and activity hours as a group. The staff also plays a part in ensuring that residents are acting responsibly, and following the house rules.

“The staff guide residents,” said Doreen, “and provide reminders for showers, do med reminders, cueing, and reinforce basic hygienic skills. Most of the time, the residents go beyond the expectations of their families, and do things that they weren’t doing at home, i.e. getting up in the morning, making the bed, etc. They are doing for themselves the things that mom would just do at home.”

When we inquired as to how the program was run financially, Doreen explained that JF&CS help families gather money from a number of different sources, which can combine to offset the out-of-pocket costs that the family is responsible for.

“Essentially, we cobble together different resources, trying to make it as affordable for families as possible,” said Doreen. “We help them get all the public resources that are out there – we use Group Adult Foster Care, which basically provides an hour of support each day for clients, which, with 9 clients in the house means 9 hours of staffing support. Everyone gets the SNAP program, the food stamp program, which is between $100 and $200 a month. We also assist our residents with their application for their Section 8 voucher, and the benefits from the Social Security Administration, SSI and SSDI. Before a resident moves into a home, the family can sit down with a JF&CS staff person, and be walked through this process.”

Families are responsible for guaranteeing that any expenses left after all the public resources have been applied are paid through personal contribution; this personal contribution should decrease drastically once the individual receives his or her Section 8 voucher.

The section 8 voucher provides “tenant based” rental assistance to eligible individuals – the participant is free to choose any housing that meets the requirements of the program and is not limited to units located in subsidized housing projects. Doreen cautions that the waiting time for the section 8 voucher is lengthy, 8 to 10 years, and she warns that there is no guarantee that an individual will be approved. Note: For more information on Section 8, see the Department of Housing and Urban Development website.

Collaborative/Shared Living Regulations

As with any housing model, there are a number of rules and regulations that ensure the smooth operation of the program. On a household management level, residents are restricted from having overnight guests (due to space issues), and are asked to be considerate of residents’ community groceries when having dinner guests. As well, as the residents are young adults, with little (if any) experience with alcohol, alcohol is not to be stored in the home.

Other regulations govern which individuals are eligible for the housing program; some houses have an age requirement of 18, others require that residents be at least 22 years of age. Eligible individuals must demonstrate core life skills and abilities, such as basic self care, and the ability to be home alone safely; he or she must also be compatible with the other residents of the house, easy going, and respectful of other resident’s privacy and space.

It is also important to note that residents must be occupied from 8:30 to 3:30, Monday to Friday, as none of the homes have staff scheduled for that time. According to Doreen, the shared living model isn’t working as well as it should if individuals are sitting at home all day, alone and unoccupied. “It is almost more important to have a busy day, than somewhere to live, if they already have somewhere to live,” Doreen explains.

Securing a Place for Your Family Member With Special Needs

Doreen describes the growth and evolution of the Shared Living program as being fueled by word of mouth; referrals from other parents and JF&CS outreach efforts to other organizations, societies, schools, etc. also lead to growth in the program

“Just give me a call,” says Doreen, “and we can have a talk, and together we can figure it out.” After receiving that first contact, Doreen explains, there will be a number of visits; both with the family as a whole, and solo visits with the individual looking to become a resident. If the individual fits into the dynamic of the home that is being considered, and gets along well with the other residents, the organization then begins the assessment process by speaking with professionals who have worked with the individual in the past.

“After that,” Doreen continues, “we help the individual with the paperwork, apply for the food stamps, get the voucher 8 application in, and figure out the government benefits. Then, they can move in,” she finishes.

Individuals looking to learn more about this program can either contact the JF&CS Disability Resource Network, or contact Doreen directly – her email is In addition to this, there is also an excellent You Tube video on the Shared Living Program, called “JF&CS Short Film: Find Help. Find Answers. Find Hope.” that shares the services that JF&CS provide to individuals, and includes one family’s perspective of the Shared Living Housing Model. You can view this video here.

When asked why she runs this program, and why she feels so passionate about it, Doreen is quick to respond, and her enthusiasm and genuine care for the clients is apparent.

“You know, these guys can stay at home, and be ok in the happiness factor,” she says, “or they can move into one of these living situations and thrive.” She talks about a recent visit to a Shared Living home, describing it as a “love fest.”

“The guys fill the room, they are chatting, the smell of dinner was awesome, it was just great!” she enthuses. “All of a sudden, you are just overwhelmed with this feeling of, these guys are loving this! And, they don’t want to go home on the weekends anymore – they want to stay in the house. What is that telling you?”


Thank you so much for taking the time to visit our blog today! If you have any questions regarding JF&CS, housing options or models for individuals with disabilities, or any other special needs topic, please contact us. We know what you are going through, and we can empathize with where you are coming from – we would love nothing more than to help you and your family on your journey.


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