October 29, 2002
Complex puts independent life in reach

* More apartments being constructed for physically disabled
By Riva Brown
rvbrown@jackson.gannett.com

Michael Fields, a paraplegic, used to bathe in bed because his bathroom couldn't accommodate him.

His wife, Dorothy Fields, covered the mattress with plastic and carried 10 half-gallon pans of water to their bedroom.

Since moving to Webb Park in Jackson, the first apartment complex in Mississippi for physically disabled people who don't earn much money, Michael Fields now rolls his wheelchair into the shower.

And he feels more independent, more positive about his abilities.

"As far as places for people in wheelchairs, this is the best place I've lived in," said Michael Fields, who has also lived in Brooklyn, N.Y.; New Orleans; Houston, Texas; and Atlanta. "This place is good. It makes me feel good. I like it."

A second complex is being built in south Hattiesburg on Bonhomie Road. The 15, one-bedroom units are expected to be completed in spring 2004.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development recently awarded $925,400 in capital advances to Mississippi Methodist Accessible Housing Inc. to cover building costs for the Hattiesburg complex.

"Research indicates that there is a growing need for this type of housing throughout the state," said Steve Hope, president of Mississippi Methodist Accessible Housing, a nonprofit corporation formed by Methodist Rehabilitation Center. "There are many disabled Mississippians who are independent enough to live on their own if the right kind of housing is available."

Cindy Montgomery, center director for Living Independence for Everyone, or LIFE, of Central Mississippi in Jackson, said the agency serves about 250 to 350 people each year with physical disabilities.

"Of those, half of them are in need of low-income housing, and all of them could benefit from it," Montgomery said. "Many consumers are paying most of their income in rent just because of the lack of accessible, low-income housing."

People with disabilities receiving Supplemental Security Income, or SSI, in
Mississippi use 70.7 percent of their income to rent a modest one-bedroom unit at fair market housing rates, according to "Priced Out in 2000: The Crisis Continues," a report by the Technical Assistance Collaborative and the Coalition for Citizens with Disabilities Housing Task Force.

"Because of their extreme poverty, the 3.5 million nonelderly people with disabilities receiving SSI benefits cannot afford decent housing anywhere in the country without some type of government housing assistance," the report said.
In addition to the capital advances from HUD, Mississippi Methodist Accessible Housing also received a five-year rental subsidy of $187,500.

The subsidy allows residents to pay about 30 percent of their income for rent, and the federal government pays the rest, according to HUD.

Michael Fields' SSI check is $540 a month, he said, and he pays $48 a month for a two-bedroom apartment.

"If you don't have that much money coming in, it's good to have an apartment like this," said Fields, 42, who was paralyzed from the waist down, mostly on his left side, when he was shot in the back at age 16.

The new complex, like the one where the Fields' live, will feature widened door frames, lowered light switches and cabinets, raised electrical outlets and accessible kitchens with roll-under spaces at the sink and stove.

Greg Westberry of Purvis thinks the new apartment complex is a good idea.

After he injured his spinal cord in a dirt bike accident in 1999, he was forced to sell his mobile home and move in with his parents.

Although he has adapted to living with his mom and dad, he said, it would be nice to be on his own again, if he could afford it. After paying his car note and insurance, he has little left from his $936 monthly SSI check.

"It's not really good for your self-esteem living at home being 30," Westberry said. "I moved out of the home when I was 18, so it's a big change."

Carlos Ladner of Poplarville, who is paralyzed from the chest down, bought a house in Hattiesburg and had it renovated to suit his needs. Three door frames had to be widened and cement ramps and a deck had to be built, among other changes.

The new Hattiesburg complex will help people like him, said Ladner, 23, who injured his spinal cord in a motorcycle accident five years ago.

"It would be good for people that have problems trying to find places that they could live without having to make a lot of modifications to it," Ladner said, "and find a place where you can afford to pay for it."

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