Lawrence Matthews isn't even sure how he ended up in the nursing home. The 56-year-old remembers falling on the ice in January 2009, waking up in the hospital, groggily signing some papers then being moved to a facility he's spent the last three years trying to get out of.
Now, he and his wife — who he met in the nursing home — recently moved into a place of their own along Chicago's lakefront thanks to a federal program that helps people with disabilities who are 61 and younger leave institutions and secure apartments using public housing vouchers.
The Non-Elderly Disabled program administrated by the Chicago Housing Authority has helped dozens of low-income people like Matthews who landed in nursing homes because of a medical need then couldn't afford to move out once their conditions improved.
There's a movement to transition people out of nursing facilities and into homes of their own. In December, a federal judge in Chicago approved a settlement in a class-action lawsuit that could help thousands of disabled, low-income Illinois residents move out of nursing homes.
Government officials say such programs save tax dollars, while advocates believe everyone benefits from having people with disabilities better integrated into communities. Matthews says he's grateful to no longer feel stuck.
"Money keeps you in the nursing home," he said. "It's not where we wanted to spend the rest of our lives."
The CHA has partnered with Access Living, an advocacy group for the disabled, to administer the voucher program. Access Living helps identify residents in institutions who are interested in relocating, finds accessible living arrangements in the private market and works to smooth the transition, including taking people shopping for groceries and appliances. (Disclosure: Access Living is a partner of Chicago Public Media, WBEZ's parent company.)
Participants pay 30 percent of their annual adjusted income for rent, and the federal Housing Choice Voucher program pays the rest.
Independent living costs about half of what it costs to house someone in an institution, where the money must cover facility expenses such as staff, maintenance and insurance, advocates say. In a home setting, the expenses are rent, medical costs and personal assistants if they're needed for just one person, rather than an entire building.
"The state doesn't need to be charged 24 hours for everyone who's in a nursing facility," said Rahnee Patrick, director of independent living at Access Living. "Some people may, not everybody will."
Federally mandated surveys at nursing homes show one in five residents would rather live in the community, Patrick said.
For the CHA, the so-called NED program has been a chance to help a unique and previously unreached population.
Amanda Motyka, Americans with Disabilities Act compliance manager for the CHA, remembers walking into an Access Living event and getting a hero's welcome.
"They pointed CHA out, 'that's who freed you from your nursing home,'" she said. "Everyone's clapping...it's very touching."
Matthews, who was sidelined from his job as a laboratory optician by health problems, broke his hip during the fall on the ice and lost his place to live as he recuperated. He learned of Access Living from another resident at the nursing home, and he was pleasantly surprised that it only took months — not years — for him and his wife to move from the facility and into their apartment.
His wife immediately fell in love with the place, a 20th-floor duplex with dramatic views of Lake Michigan. The couple married on Valentine's Day 2010.
For the couple, having a home of their own means living by their own rules in their own space.
"There's too many similarities between prison and the nursing home," Matthews said.