Families Work To Create Integrated Housing Model

Last year, Kirby Wilkins published a book about his relationship with his son Jake who has been living with severe cerebral palsy since birth. But “Life with Jake: A Father’s Story” is missing a crucial chapter, the chapter yet to come.

If all goes as planned, in a couple of years, Jake, who is now 23, will be in his own new home in a beautiful patch of Santa Cruz, living as independently as his condition will allow.

Wilkins, 79, was a central part of the Cabrillo College English faculty for more than 30 years and even served as the English Department’s chair before his retirement in 2002. He and several other families of young adults with disabilities have all contributed to an ambitious real-estate project called Costanoa Commons to help their loved ones live autonomous lives.

An alliance of 11 families from around the Bay Area have purchased a 7-acre parcel near the Pogonip open space that will serve as both a working farm and as affordable housing.

“Essentially, we’re going to create a neighborhood,” said Heidi Cartan, the executive director of the nonprofit that will be managing the project. Cartan also has an adult son with cerebral palsy.

The exact number of units in single-family homes and cottages has yet to be determined and they won’t be available for renters until 2018 or 2019, but Cartan said the housing will be made available to people with and without disabilities.

“We want an integrated neighborhood,” she said. “We don’t want to create a colony of people with disabilities.”

Most of the parcel will be dedicated to farmland, producing organic produce as well as providing educational and training opportunities for students. The parcel, owned and managed by the Puccinelli family for more than 100 years, has a history with farming, serving as “incubator” for several other local farms, said Cartan.

“We are resurrecting that tradition,” she said.

The tenants on the property can choose to participate in the farm, or not, said Cartan.

Cartan said that the project is trying to create a model for dignified, independent living for adults with disabilities, something between the options of having to live with their parents or being “warehoused” in state-run or private facilities.

“My son is very unlikely to ever land typically competitive employment that’s going to allow him to support himself. But there’s a big spread between being warehoused, which is what we don’t want, and functioning like folks who can secure typical employment. We’re trying to find that sweet spot.”

For Wilkins, Costanoa Commons represents a practical solution to what they’ve always wanted for their children.

“We’re like any parent who looks ahead for their kids and thinks about what they’re going to do and how their life is going to be, though it is a little different in this situation.”

“The ‘L word’ was always a big problem for me,” said the thrice-married Wilkins, referring to his capacity to love. “The way I had grown up, I had no interest in children, not an aversion to them, just no interest.”

Then Jake was born. A few years later, Wilkins’s marriage fell apart and he was the boy’s primary caregiver. His book, a mix of early poetry and later prose pieces, represents his waking up to the power of the “L word.”

“For a person as pessimistic as I was, (Jake’s birth) was an odd turn. Everything that looked like a disaster turned out to be wonderful.”

© 2016 the Santa Cruz Sentinel

by Wallace Baine, Santa Cruz Sentinel/TNS | March 7, 2016