Individuals with significant disabilities need hope and action

As a new Congress begins, the mental health and broader disability community is losing a champion with the retirement of Rep. Rodney FrelinghuysenRodney Procter FrelinghuysenBottom line Republican lobbying firms riding high despite uncertainty of 2020 race Ex-Rep. Frelinghuysen joins law and lobby firm MORE (R-N.J.). Since taking office in 1995, Frelinghuysen has fought for the rights of disabled Americans by reaching across the aisle to secure critical support for these individuals. It wasn’t always easy.

For too long, adequate health treatment and services languished on the back burner of American politics. Stigmatized and overlooked, it took leadership from representatives in Congress, like Rep. Frelinghuysen, to turn the tide and enact true change.

It’s estimated that one in five Americans live with a disability. While individual medical needs vary greatly from person to person, a key component in the health and wellbeing of individuals with disabilities has long been stable housing.

A place to call home gives individuals a foundation to build upon as they manage the symptoms of their disability and continue their road to recovery. Ups and downs in the treatment of mental illnesses and other disabilities can be expected, but having one’s own space to decompress and share with loved ones is essential to ensuring successful health outcomes.

Unfortunately, this truth is too often overlooked in our public discourse around support for people with disabilities, including those with a serious mental illness, who bear the brunt of America’s current housing crisis. Almost 9 million people with disabilities receive Supplemental Security Income (SSI), according to the Social Security Administration.

As rent and housing prices have climbed, many of these people receiving SSI as their only source of income find themselves unable to afford safe and suitable housing without some form of rental assistance.

Without a space to anchor them, people with disabilities facing frequently destabilizing diagnoses may spiral. Homelessness is not conducive to recovery or proper medical treatment and presents a serious impediment to people getting the care they need. Solutions were and are still desperately needed. A tall order in a Congress seemingly more divided by partisanship than ever before.

Luckily, there still remains a contingent of members dedicated to results. Thanks to the leadership of Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen over the years, Congress included in its appropriations substantial increases for programs that support non-elderly individuals with disabilities and green-lit the development of new rent assistance and supportive housing units for individuals experiencing homelessness.

These appropriations also provide funding to assist homeless and at-risk veterans, who disproportionately battle mental disabilities, into permanent supportive housing.

The result from these years of work? Between 1997 and 2009, 54,967 vouchers for individuals with disabilities were issued. With this latest round of appropriations 12,000 vouchers were just awarded, with 36,000 vouchers estimated to be issued with the remaining $300 million.

While congressional appropriations levels may be brushed aside by some as confusing policy minutia, their impact on the lives of individuals with significant disabilities cannot be overstated. More support for these populations means less homelessness, more resources that can be directed toward critical care needs and ultimately more families who can enjoy long sought stability.

Think about everything that happens in your home. The holidays experienced, the restful nights and joyful parties with family and friends. The apartment or house you live in is, in many ways, the focal point of people’s lives and experiences.

Individuals living with significant disabilities are no different. While the home’s presence in our lives is rarely appreciated, its absence can reverberate through all facets of our lives, including our health.

Public service is, at its core, about helping others and since 1995, Frelinghuysen has advanced policies and advocacy on behalf of the millions of people with disabilities in need of support and compassion from their neighbors and fellow Americans.

After more than two decades of public service, more than 100,000 non-elderly people living with a significant disability now have a decent, safe and affordable place to live because of Rep. Frelinghuysen. His retirement from Capitol Hill leaves open a mantle for other allies to take up.

Disability knows no party, region, race or religion. Only together, can we continue building better lives for the millions of Americans affected by life-altering conditions.

Andrew Sperling has been the director of legislative and policy advocacy at the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) since 1996. For nearly two decades he has advocated on behalf of individuals with mental illness to Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen and the broader House Appropriations Committee.