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Nova Scotia’s system to provide housing for persons with intellectual disabilities is overburdened and bureaucratic and governments keep promising to fix it. As King’s students discovered, our most vulnerable citizens are essentially warehoused.






A system in crisis

Nancy Walker’s partner had never seen her so upset. She had cried through the entire meeting with her son’s social worker, and would continue to cry “pretty much for the whole year. Every single day.” This isn’t what she’d wanted. This isn’t what she’d wanted at all.

Ben James, her 19-year-old boy-becoming-man, had severe autism. He was in public school and had improved his communication by using picture-and-words systems and new technologies available for autistic people, on iPods. He loved swimming, went bowling once a week and thrived at his recycling centre job.

Walker had dreams for him.

But James could be violent. The six-foot-two, 230-pound teenager’s kicks, scratches, bites and head butts were nearly always aimed at his mother. Despite the stronghold that was his bedroom – reinforced walls, double studding, a Plexiglas window and a steel door – Walker still had to find ways of avoiding her son’s demands, and physical outbursts when they weren’t met.

A choice between two evils

She took to long drives around their Halifax neighbourhood “looking” for things he wanted but really just waiting for him to fall asleep. She was rarely home, where she had a partner and another child pining for her attention. Walker realized she had a choice between two evils: Either she would have to leave the home, or James would.

Quest Centre in Lower Sackville (King’s Investigative photo)

At that tearful meeting with the social worker, Walker agreed to have James placed at the Quest Regional Rehabilitation Centre in Lower Sackville, N.S., just outside Halifax.  She had not yet seen the facility, but when she did, she thought she had chosen the greater evil.

Just angry now

James has been living at Quest since 2009, and Walker no longer cries as much.

Now she is just angry.

She is angry that her son, as a person with a developmental disability, will never have the same opportunities as his 17-year-old brother. She is angry that he is deprived of a home-like environment, of the basic freedoms in life and of the opportunity to grow. And she is furious at a system that allows that to happen.

There is a housing crisis in Canada preventing people with intellectual disabilities, 900,000 people according to the Canadian Association for Community Living, or two per cent of the country’s population, from leading normal lives. In Nova Scotia, the system has been under strain for more than a decade. And unlike other provinces that have moved more quickly to house people with intellectual disabilities in smaller, home-like facilities, Nova Scotia has chosen to keep larger institutions such as Quest open and, in some cases, even to expand them.

Far more than most provinces, Nova Scotia has chosen to warehouse its most vulnerable citizens.

Not enough room

There is not enough room in the system for all of the people who need a place to live. They languish on waiting lists that are hundreds of names long. Their families, in turn, must support them with scant financial, caregiving or community programming resources. Eventually the families get too old or sick to do it, making the situation for their relatives in rehab even worse.

With so little room, placements are driven by crises. These crises, in turn, lead to inappropriate placements that only exacerbate individuals’ disabilities and sometimes cause mental health issues.

It is a bureaucratic system driven by policies, not people’s needs. And in the instances where policy would help to improve lives – in properly licensing, regulating, staffing and overseeing housing options – the system falls short.

Successive provincial governments have known all about this crisis and have repeatedly promised to fix it. The current NDP government is no exception.

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