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For People With Disabilities In Two States, Opposite Fates

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This story was reported in collaboration with our partners at Patch.com.

When people ask Stanley Ligas, a 43-year-old with Down syndrome, why he wanted to move into a group home after being more or less confined in a state institution for 14 years, he talked about the noise.

People were always "shouting, swearing," he said. Ligas shared the place with 95 other people, so it's easy to imagine that it got quite a bit louder than the typical household.

In any case, he got tired of it, and in 2005, he and eight other people with disabilities sued the state of Illinois for failing to comply with the Americans With Disabilities Act, which says that states must provide disability checks to people who qualify for them regardless of where they live. Illinois restricted its funding to people in institutions and whoever was lucky enough to make if off a 14-year waiting list.

People with disabilities who depend on government funding have more at stake than most in the decisions of lawmakers, and recent legal developments in two states have made this clear.

The first is the Illinois case, which came to a triumphant conclusion for Ligas on Wednesday when the state agreed to part of a settlement that will effectively allow him and about 3,000 people with disabilities to move out of institutions and into community-based housing over the next six years. Ligas is scheduled to move out in the next two months.

“I'm happy," he said. "I want to say goodbye to Sheltered Village."

The second is a proposed ordinance in California. If it passes, it will widely be seen by people with disabilities and their advocates as an enormous loss.

Earlier this month in Los Angeles, the city council voted almost unanimously to draft an ordinance that will essentially make it impossible for people who collect disability checks to live under the same roof in a single-family home –- that is, in a group home.

Neighbors often object to having group homes placed in their communities because they can bring violence, drugs and crime to neighborhoods. But everyone has to live somewhere, and if the final ordinance passes next week, many people with disabilities, mental illnesses and serious drug and alcohol addictions are expected to wind up living on the streets, or in seedy "residential" hotels. Or in noisy institutions.

Peggy Edwards, the executive director of the advocacy group United Homeless Healthcare Partners, said it was hard to track the number of people living in group homes in L.A., but she warned that if the ordinance goes through it could "significantly increase the homeless rate."

"People who are in violation of this ordinance could be evicted," she said. "There just isn't enough affordable housing, even if they could afford it."

One of those people is Daniel Orr, who lost his job as a handyman not long ago when he started using drugs again after six years of "clean time." The 47-year-old lost his home soon after that, and then he checked into a rehab center. Orr said it was either that or "skid row."

After the stint in rehab, things began getting better. For the past four months he's been living in a "Sunrise House" –- that's what the organization that runs it calls the group homes under its management. He takes 12-step classes in the house, and says its strict rules against drug and alcohol use have helped him stay sober. He said he'd like to take his time to decide when he's ready to return to "a regular life" and the challenges that go with it.

But as it turns out, California may end up making that decision for him. The proposed ordinance, which is now being drafted by a city official in preparation for a final vote by the council, says that everyone who lives under the same roof in a single-family home must be on the same lease. This will include people living in group homes.

This might not sound like a big deal, but here's the thing: In order to collect funding from the state, people with disabilities are required to maintain their own leases. Unless, of course, they live in a state institution –- like the one Stanley Ligas has lived in for 14 years.

Both the ordinance in L.A. and the settlement in Illinois are bound to affect a lot of people besides just Ligas and Orr.

In Illinois, J.J. Hanley, the mother of a son with autism and founder of a website on which people with disabilities post reviews of Chicago business, said she hoped the settlement would force the state to kick what she described as its "very bad addiction to institutions as places to warehouse people with disabilities." (Her own son has never been institutionalized -- she described him as high-functioning.)

Gail Schecter, the executive director of the Interfaith Housing Center, an organization that fights against housing discrimination in north Chicago, said the suit was "really about communities becoming integrated and not labeling people as 'others.'" She hopes that the settlement will help people with disabilities "become citizens of the community in the truest sense of the word."

With less than two months left before he leaves Sheltered Village, Ligas has been making plans: He wants to move into a neighborhood -- presumably a quiet one -- where he'll be close to sister. He plans to share a room with a fellow plaintiff with whom he became close friends.

Everyone who knows Ligas says he's ready for this. He holds down a job at Popeyes and manages his own finances.

But sadly, as Liga settles into a group home, Orr may be moving out of his. He believes that if the ordinance passes, he'll have two choices -- homelessness or a residential hotel -- and when it comes to living a sober life, he said, "those hotels are way worse than anything."

"There's prostitutes and crack in the courtyards and the hallways," he said. "That's not some place I want to go. I shouldn't have to go there.”

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