A Nova Scotia mother whose son has autism is taking charge of her situation by leading a new development of inclusive and accessible housing.
After Susan Harvie of Kentville saw her adult son’s physical and mental health deteriorate while living in a rehabilitation center, she came up with the idea for Ryan’s Park, a “pocket community” named after her. son and designed to meet the needs of people with disabilities. .
Ryan has spent the past 27 years living in different institutions. He moved into his first group home at age 13 after Harvie, a single mom, struggled to find the support she needed to care for Ryan and meet his specific needs.
Harvie said the COVID-19 pandemic had taken a heavy toll on her son, who recently lived in a Kings County institution.
“I was terrified that he was in danger and that he would not survive it,” she said. “At that time, his health was very poor. He had lost a lot of weight.”
Harvie brought Ryan home and said his health and disposition improved almost instantly. But the change has come with many challenges.
Harvie had to implement whole-house safety measures like removing all glass cups, putting kid locks on closet doors and the refrigerator, and installing padding on the upstairs walls.
Ryan rarely sleeps and moves all night. He’s also stressed out if things aren’t in their place, and he gets upset if Harvie leaves the kitchen.
There are few options for a person with Ryan’s needs to live at home. Even with support workers on hand to help keep her safe and comfortable, Harvie knew the environment was not right for her son.
“When we are not successful in the world, it is because our environment is not built for us,” she said.
So Harvie decided to create an environment suitable for Ryan.
She developed a plan for a small neighborhood community for Ryan and other people with disabilities to live among people without disabilities in Kentville.
Harvie said Ryan is an observer and playful, and enjoys having fun and exploring outdoors. She wants this to be a space where he and everyone can be themselves.
Private developer involved
Harvie convinced Halifax-area developer John Ghosn of Enqore Developments to help him make his dream come true.
Ghosn said Harvie’s passion made him want to get involved, despite his initial reluctance to take on this massive project.
“If someone pleads with you a great story and you can help them, then you should do it,” Ghosn said.
The project is privately funded through Enqore Developments, which paved the way in June last year at the site of the former King’s County Academy. The cost of the project was not disclosed.
“This is probably one of my most rewarding projects I have ever done,” Ghosn said.
Ryan’s Park Phase 1 will have 22 row houses surrounding a courtyard. Some homes will be barrier-free, and Ryan’s house is specially designed for his needs, with additional stairs and a separate kitchen to relieve his anxiety.
The design of the accessible units was created in consultation with Harvie and architects who specialize in building accessible environments.
“This house that I helped design for Ryan is going to make him a success,” said Harvie. “It’s just built ideally for him.”
The goal is for the project to be completed and for its first inhabitants to move in by next summer. Some of the units are already advertised, but anyone wishing to live in the pocket community is eligible to apply.
Ghosn said rents will be market prices, but the provincial government is not involved, so rent may be a barrier for some.
“We have no government support,” he said. “They talk about wanting to dismantle institutions and provide appropriate housing for people with special needs, but very little is happening.”
Ghosn and Harvie want to see government support in the future to help families with a disabled member live in Ryan’s Park. Harvie said Ryan will have a roommate to cut costs.
In an emailed statement, the province’s Department of Community Services did not say whether it would be open to funding projects like Ryan’s Park. He highlighted his Disability Support Program, which provides funding to support people with disabilities who wish to live and work in their community.
“People with disabilities should be able to choose their place of residence,” the ministry said.
Municipality on board
This project is the first of its kind in the province, and the aim is to get the ball rolling for similar developments in the future.
Kentville Mayor Sandra Snow said municipalities can have a big impact by facilitating accessible developments like this.
To enable Ryan’s Park, the city sold the land to Enqore Developments, issued a development agreement, amended land use regulations, and created a city accessibility plan.
“It’s just amazing what’s going to be created up there from an inclusive perspective,” she said.
Snow said she hopes this will let other municipalities know they can do more.
“I think this is going to put a whole new way of thinking in housing for people to consider,” Snow said.
“No matter how much we talk about it, it doesn’t change. I think what people need to see is the actual implementation of these changes.”
The hope is that the neighborhood becomes a family, with Ryan – and his new home – at the heart of it.