A contingent of Utahns with disabilities are among 500 disabled Americans who have set up the first-ever tent city at a major government agency to protest federal underfunding of affordable housing.

DUH City, which has sprung up outside the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development office building in Washington, D.C., is intended to bring public attention to what the residents claim is continuing neglect by the agency.

In particular, said Barb Toomer, a DUH City and Salt Lake resident who has led protest gatherings such as overnight occupation of the Capitol and picket lines at care centers in the area, said the group is taking direct action against HUD to force action on the "single largest barrier to freeing our people — affordable, accessible, integrated housing."

Rent for a modest studio or one bedroom apartment in housing markets across the country is more than the total monthly Supplemental Security Income check, Toomer said. "You can't pay the rent, so where do you go? Out on the street or into a nursing home. DUH!"

Spelling HUD backward as a name for the temporary town is a reminder to candidates this election year not to forget that the disabled are voters, too, and should be high on campaign debate agendas, said members of ADAPT, the nation's largest grass-roots association of people with disabilities and organizer of the protest.

Speaking for ADAPT Utah, Toomer said the 2008 primary election campaigns have included rhetoric about tax breaks for middle income families, and media coverage has included stories about families who have children with disabilities.

"Left out of all the election rhetoric are the candidates' positions on and commitments to those babies with disabilities who grow into adults with disabilities who all-too-often survive on extremely low incomes — less than 30 percent of the median income," Toomer said.

In 2006, the federal SSI benefit was $603 per month and the average cost nationally of renting a studio/efficiency apartment was $633 per month, according to figures supplied by ADAPT.

Protesters, who say they plan to stay at the encampment through Thursday, also hope to raise lawmaker awareness of proposed legislation — the Community Choice Act — that would allow older and disabled people to live in their own homes instead of being forced by circumstances to live in nursing homes and care centers.

"When that passes, the need for even more affordable, accessible housing will increase," Toomer said. "And as the baby-boomers continue to age, the demand will grow exponentially. HUD, Congress and the Administration have broken promises, cut funding for housing stock and housing subsidies and enforcement of anti-discrimination housing laws, and simply ignored the nation's low-income people with disabilities altogether."

Toomer and others say current federal programs for the poor and disabled continue to be biased toward institutionalization and against alternative housing choices for those who are on supplemental incomes.

During the week, ADAPT members plan to confront a variety of policymakers and systems that continue to put up barriers to community living for disabled and older Americans. Home and community-based services, housing, transportation, hospital discharge planning, and managed care of long-term supports and services are all on ADAPT's list of possible targets.

The Barack Obama presidential campaign has endorsed the act, so ADAPT will continue to focus the effort on the John McCain camp. ADAPT celebrated 25 years of activism in Washington, D.C., this past April, closing down both the Republican National Committee offices and Sen. McCain's office in the Russell Senate Building demanding endorsement.

"Not only does Sen. McCain have a disability himself, he has an aging mother," said Frank Wulle, ADAPT/Utah. "You'd think he'd understand our issues. But maybe having all that money and all those homes puts him totally out of touch with the reality that older Americans and Americans with disabilities live with every day. Being able to live free in the community shouldn't only be available to the ultra-rich. Civil rights are not based on income."

Since its inception in 1983, ADAPT has fought for the right of people with disabilities, old and young, to live in their own homes and communities. ADAPT efforts have resulted in a significant shift toward community of the Medicaid dollars formerly directed overwhelmingly to institutions.

ADAPT has also been credited by former federal Medicaid officials with creation of the Money Follows the Person portion of the 2006 federal Deficit Reduction Act of 2005.


E-mail: jthalman@desnews.com