Efforts to house people with disabilities gain steam in Teton County, Wyoming
As Teton County continues to grapple with how to fund new housing, local advocates are working to help people with developmental disabilities.
The sounds of tv, squeaky toys and other loud noises filled the Bartz residence on a weekday morning.
“A lot of moving parts, always a lot going on around here,” said Cindy Bartz.
She’s the mother of Jas Bartz, a 21-year-old with intellectual disabilities.
Sitting on a beanbag in his bedroom, surrounded by stuffed animals, Jas has Fragile X syndrome, what Cindy describes as a mix of autism and cognitive impairment.
He uses high-pitched screams to get his mom’s attention.
“He’s non-verbal, so he uses the iPad to communicate as well,” said Cindy, as Jas clicked an option on the screen indicating he wanted to watch an episode of Sesame Street.
Jas graduated from high school last summer, where Cindy says he got a lot of support, care and therapy.
But she said leaving that system was like: “falling off a cliff.”
“It’s been a little bit of a jolt to the system,” Cindy said. “Just to all of a sudden be the one who’s managing everything.”
Cindy said she wants a future for her son where he can move out of the house just like other young adults.
“The thing that we’re missing is some of that infrastructure of literally housing communities so that people can continue after they leave the care of their families to live as independently and as integrated into the community as possible,” she said.
Jas is one of over 3,000 people in Teton County living with some kind of disability, intellectual or physical, according to recent U.S. Census data.
But the residential program for people with intellectual disabilities in Jackson only has twelve beds, and it’s struggled with staffing.
“How do we create housing for adults living with disabilities?” April Norton said while sitting on the lawn outside her office.
She leads the Jackson/Teton County Affordable Housing Department.
“At the end of the day, how do we create livable housing that includes everyone? That’s the challenge and opportunity,” she said.
In a town with one of the highest costs of living in the country, officials like Norton are grappling with how to keep people with developmental disabilities in the community.
Local elected leaders recently said they would consider hiring a consultant to look at how to house this group, as well as seniors, but they haven’t written the check yet.
Still, Norton said, this was a big deal.
“I think it’s a turning point individually for our organization [the housing department] because in the past we have not had either senior housing or housing for people living with disabilities really within our scope of work,” she said.
There’s no timeline for when the region may be able to boost housing supply for people with disabilities, but some in the community are helping members find other ways to lay down roots.
Lettuce and tomatoes line the walls of the three-story indoor farm in downtown Jackson.
“About 40% of our workforce identifies as having a disability,” said Caroline Croft Estay. “It’s a totally inclusive, integrated workspace.”
Croft Estay co-founded the farm, Vertical Harvest, back in 2008. She used to be a case manager for people with disabilities.
“I was running into roadblock after roadblock with a lot of the young adults that I was working with that were about to graduate from high school,” she said. “There wasn’t much around about competitive employment or employment opportunities for people with disabilities.”
Within a year of starting the farm, Croft Estay said her employees with disabilities had built a community within the workplace — whether in the tomato department or the packaging one.
She said she hopes to translate that model into community housing.
“Where you have a mixed use kind of housing and individuals living there that have disabilities, maybe some from the elderly community, maybe just some young single 20-something year olds that are here for the summer,” she explained.
One employee at Vertical Harvest, Tim McLaurin, said he’d love to see more efforts to house folks with disabilities.
“I think that would be cool and awesome if they could have that happen because it would mean to our community,” said McLaurin, who has Down syndrome.
McLaurin lives on his own in East Jackson, but said more support is needed for people who can’t be as independent.
“We do want to get housing for people of different abilities,” he said. “For me, I would support that all the way.”
Back down at the Bartz home, Cindy said that Jas also spends time at Vertical Harvest getting work experience.
“I’ve always dreamed of him being part of this community where he was known and loved and visible, not hidden away,” Cindy said.
As Teton County continues to consider how exactly to fund new housing efforts – and where they should go – Cindy is spearheading conversations in the community about the future for people like her son.
“Let’s do this,” she said. “This is who we are. This is who we believe ourselves to be as a small, welcoming, inclusive community … we can dream big.”
While nobody’s breaking ground yet, Cindy said she’s optimistic about the road ahead.
This is the first installment in KHOL’s series on housing, employment and affordability.
This story was shared with Aspen Public Radio via Rocky Mountain Community Radio, a network of public media stations in Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico including Aspen Public Radio.