Independent living

Independent living

What most parents take for granted —that their children will one day grow up, move out of the house, and begin independent lives — is only a dream for many families of those with intellectual disabilities.
But with the opening of Jason Kramer Hall, Jewish Residential Services will enable 10 adults with such disabilities to live on their own in a secure and supportive environment, with opportunities for meaningful social connections.
Jason Kramer Hall, which will be introduced to the community at a housewarming event on Thursday, Sept. 15, will open its doors on Darlington Road in Squirrel Hill to 10 new tenants at the end of the month. The newly renovated apartment building includes 10 one-bedroom apartments, a spacious common area with a kosher kitchen and laundry facilities.
The building is a JRS project in partnership with ACTION-Housing, subsidized by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). Because it is subsidized by HUD, a tenant’s rent at Jason Kramer Hall will be calculated based on the amount he can afford to pay.
Jason Kramer Hall is the second JRS project of its kind, joining the 12-unit Charles Morris Hall, which launched in August 2000. The new facility is named for the late Jason Kramer, who had “a transformational experience” as a resident of Charles Morris Hall, said Debbie Friedman, executive director of JRS.
“We developed both of these programs (Jason Kramer Hall and Charles Morris Hall) because there was documented need for them in the Jewish community,” she said.
While people with more severe disabilities may qualify for various government-funded services and support, the JRS facilities cater to those who may be on the autism spectrum, or have a seizure disorder, or a learning disability, but who do not qualify for public aid, according to Friedman.
“If your IQ is 70 or below, you would be able to receive certain public funding and support,” explained Linda Lewis, director of operations at JRS. “But if your IQ is above 70, you’re stuck. Your needs can’t be met by public funding. It then falls on your family to help you learn how to live. This is housing for people in that circumstance. It allows them to move away from their family and grow up.”
Many of the residents hold a job, and all have the capacity to learn how to manage day-to-day tasks on their own, said Lewis.
“They won’t need a lot of assistance,” she said. “They may struggle a bit socially. Sometimes we [JRS staff] have to come in and do group work, like teaching them how to share the common areas, and not to play their music too loudly. When you are living in a communal environment, you have to learn how to share space and be respectful of each other.”
JRS housing provides these adults —mostly in their 20s, 30s and 40s — with a welcome alternative to living with family members.
“Without this building, they would be living at home,” said E.J. Strassburger, board member and past president of JRS, who was instrumental in acquiring the property and overseeing the project.
The common area boasts a spacious living room and computer space, and will be equipped with a large screen television. It is this room that will be the heart of the building.
“We know from experience that this will be a really important space, where a sense of community is forged,” said Friedman. “This is where the group will establish an identity, and people will establish friendships. These are people who often have a hard time finding a peer group. They are capable and able enough that they often don’t fit into activities for more seriously disabled people, but have a hard time with mainstream activities, too.”
Once the residents move in, and begin jelling as a group, individual strengths will emerge to help build a community, said Lewis.
“Naturally, leaders emerge,” she said. “Someone will be the one to remind others that it’s snowing outside, and to be careful, or to remind people to lock their doors. Someone at Charles Morris Hall is good with computers and the DVD player, for example. Some people are more social and will take charge in arranging activities and get-togethers.”
While no JRS staff will live on the premises, a staff member will be on location about 30 hours a week initially to help people move in and to help establish group activities, such as weekly Shabbat dinners. JRS staff also will be available off-site at all times.
The location of the building, within walking distance to Squirrel Hill’s business districts, will help enable the residents to integrate into the community at large, Friedman said.
While the JRS-sponsored apartment buildings allow some intellectually disabled adults to live lives independent of their families, the need for such housing greatly exceeds the existing number of units available, Friedman said.
“Charles Morris Hall has a huge waiting list of over 100 people,” she said. “This is long-term housing, where people move in and benefit for the rest of their lives. It is rare there is an opening. We could build 10 of these and not get through the waiting list.”

(Toby Tabachnick can be reached at

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