Barrier Free Living, the first transitional housing of its kind specifically for people with disabilities.
A few years ago, one of the members LeShan Gaulman worked with when he was a care manager for ICS was being evicted from her home, which was going co-op. While working on taking the landlord to court, LeShan helped the member find a place at one of New York City’s shelters for homeless women, but as his client had a severe disability, LeShan knew a better solution was needed. Someone might have recommended the member go into a nursing home, but LeShan was looking for something that, in the spirit of ICS, would keep her independent and in the community.
It was then that he learned about Barrier Free Living (BFL), the first transitional housing of its kind specifically for people with disabilities. Other shelters were accessible to wheelchairs, but only BFL, on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, had programs to help people like LeShan’s client dress, bathe, use the bathroom and get on the path toward finding a permanent home like her old one.
For the next few years, LeShan worked with several more ICS members who needed the services of BFL’s transitional housing. He even helped enroll some BFL residents as ICS members. In 2013, BFL hired LeShan outright. He’s now director of transitional housing program, one of four programs the nonprofit offers.
“It was a natural fit,” LeShan says. “There are so many areas where the missions of ICS and Barrier Free overlap.”
The multifaceted nonprofit organization now known as BFL began in 1986 with a non-residential counseling program called Secret Garden for survivors of abuse and domestic violence who have a disability. One of the first programs of its kind in the United States, Secret Garden now offers its services at BFL’s main office on the Lower East Side and at four Family Justice Centers throughout the city. For the past three decades, the program has provided its clients with support groups, advocacy, case management, safety planning and individual counseling.
In 1990, BFL opened the transitional housing program’s fully accessible shelter for up to 48 residents, most of whom are referred by the city’s Department of Homeless Services. “Occasionally, someone in need will just show up at the shelter,” LeShan says. The program arose to service single people with disabilities cycling through the city’s emergency rooms, nursing homes and homeless shelters. “It’s the first and only service of its kind in New York State,” LeShan says. “The object is to place residents in long-term housing.”
The BFL shelter has served 295 residents in the past six years, Le Shan says; the average length of stay is about fourteen months. The program provides residents with a wide range of services, including managed long-term care management courtesy of ICS, occupational therapy, housing, and, through an arrangement with Cooperative Home Care Association (CHCA), personal care aides whose services are shared on the cluster care model. Occupational therapists assist residents with financial planning, stress management, housing interview skills, meal preparation, health and wellness and adaptive equipment training. Through its connection with ICS, BFL also offers residents monthly wheelchair repair and post-shelter health care follow-up. Some of the shelter’s residents who are recovering from physical, emotional or sexual abuse are connected with the BFL sister program at Secret Garden.
Latoya Terborg, the ICS social worker who handles care management for the members in residence at BFL, has an office at the shelter. “You need to have a passion for this work,” she says. “I like helping people who have real serious needs. I feel that this important work. We need more shelters like this one, where you have a compassionate team approach to getting people what they need to move forward. It’s a small program, but a good one.”
A little over a decade after the transitional housing program opened, BFL added Freedom House to its stock of accessible shelters in 2006. The 44-apartment, 86-bed building was the first fully accessible shelter in the nation for victims of domestic violence with disabilities and their families. In addition to housing for individuals and families, Freedom House offers many of the skills-building and support programs offered by the other BFL programs.
This past July, BFL opened its Barrier Free Living Apartments in the South Bronx, a model for the type of housing residents of its other programs aspire to transition to. This new supportive housing development offers 120 units of accessible, affordable housing: 50 studio apartments for singles, and 19 one-bedroom and 31 two-bedroom apartments for families whose heads of household have a disability. The apartments also offer residents care management, counseling, occupational therapy, and assistance with general medical and psychiatric needs. As of mid-November, the residence is about 80 percent filled. (For information on how to qualify and apply for residency, go here.)
Since its earliest days, BFL has won numerous awards and honors for its innovative programming, including having its transitional housing named among 100 top model programs in the International Year of Shelter for the Homeless. In December, LeShan himself will receive the 9th Annual Emerging Social Work Leader Award of the National Association of Social Workers from the New York City Chapter.
Like ICS, BFL serves residents of four boroughs of New York City (excepting only Staten Island) who have complex medical needs with the aim of keeping them safe, healthy and independent. “There are now about fifteen ICS members in our transitional housing,” LeShan says. “Ideally they would all be members, but we can’t make them join if they don’t want to.”
Some of the members BFL and ICS share, like the one LeShan first placed in the BFL shelter, come to BFL already enrolled in ICS, but the door goes the other way as well. One frigid February night, LeShan said, a young woman with a rare blood disorder that had claimed two of her legs, one hand and two fingers on her remaining hand, rolled into the shelter on a manual chair. “One hand!” LeShan emphasizes. “In a manual chair! Imagine how hard that must have been to push—and in the middle of the winter!”
LeShan helped enroll the woman in ICS. By the end of her residence, she had two prosthetic legs, a prosthetic hand, a power wheelchair and a place to live. “I was on a mission with her,” LeShan says.
Congratulations to LeShan for his distinguished award on behalf of all his former colleagues and present partners like Latoya at ICS. We look forward to working with him and BFL for many years to come.