Norfolk-based Hope House has been at the forefront of efforts to help people with disabilities live independently for decades.
Lynne Seagle led the organization for the last 30 years.
She retired as executive director earlier this month and spoke with WHRO about what she has done and what has changed since she started with Hope House in the '70s.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
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WHRO: Looking back on your time at Hope House, what's one thing that stands out as your crowning accomplishment?
LYNNE SEAGLE: There's no doubt in my mind it's being part of the leadership of closing all of these group homes and saying it does not matter what your disability is, what the level of support needs you have, let's just start with just the fundamental — your own home. No doubt in my mind.
And we were awarded the Kennedy Award for that effort. You know, it's funny because, what is that, 30 years ago now? And I'm still asked to go speak around the country about closing the group homes. What other industry can you think of that something they did 30 years ago, people want to hear about in 2023 like it's a new idea?
WHRO: In 1984, Hope House polled the folks that it was serving, asking them how they wanted to live. The overwhelming response was that they wanted to live on their own and be able to work and engage with people who weren't hired to interact with them.
And over that next decade, Hope House closed down 13 group homes and found 130 or so people places of their own. What was the reaction from the wider community?
SEAGLE: Well, I mean, you have to do a comparison. When we were opening group homes, we would announce we're buying this house or moving eight or 10 people into the neighborhood civic league. And if there wasn't a civic league, boy, that announcement would create one. And we had a lot of resistance around property values and concerns for safety and and sometimes downright 'Not in my backyard.'
Now, when people rented apartments in their own names, there wasn't any big brouhaha in the neighborhood. And the landlords felt like, okay, the law says don't discriminate. We're not going to discriminate unless something goes wrong or someone doesn't pay their rent or there some kind of disruption, which there was not.
WHRO: So it sounds like there was a lot less resistance from landlords than from people who would have been living next door or down the block from a group home.
SEAGLE: Yes. And that kind of arrangement, unlike a group home, creates natural connections. So it's just like you or I. You might not be best friends with your next-door neighbor immediately. You might start out by saying something like, 'Well it's hot today.' And then maybe months and months later you say, 'Yeah, I'll feed your cat.' So it was a more organic and natural way of making connections versus a contrived way when people were in group homes.
WHRO: Hope House doesn't just house people with intellectual disabilities. Tell me how Hope House got into providing affordable housing for the general public in the course of serving those folks.
SEAGLE: We set up a separate corporation called the Residential Corporation to do nothing but acquire safe and affordable housing, separate from the service end. And so you could conceivably rent an apartment and decide 'you know, I don't want Hope House Foundation to provide services to me. I want X, Y, or Z to provide.' Well, you don't have to move. Now, if you lived in a group home, you have to move.
Secondly, we did our first capital campaign for this organization, and our case for support was safe and affordable housing for people with disabilities. We raised $1 million. That was phenomenal to us and (the corporation) parlayed that into buying several apartment complexes.
Well, our next capital campaign, our consultant goes 'no, I don't think that's your case for support, because you only support this number of people, maybe six people in a 24 unit (building). Those other people that live in Hampton Roads who need safe and affordable housing are renting the remainder. So your case for support is we want to provide safe and affordable housing for Hampton Roads.' We raised $3 million.
WHRO: How many properties does the foundation operate?
SEAGLE: Twelve. Right now they operate one where there's nobody we support in it. It's just safe and affordable housing. And in all of them, except for very few, in Ghent mainly, where there's a high concentration of housing and walkable neighborhoods and so forth, are really rented by just citizens in Hampton Roads.
WHRO: In your time with Hope House, what's been the biggest change you've seen in housing folks with disabilities?
SEAGLE: Well, when I started, people were either at home living with their parents or in institutions — large-scale institutions. Virginia operated one of the largest in the country, Lynchburg Training Center. That idea of institutionalization separate from the rest of the community was very dominant in 1978 when I started with Hope House Foundation. I think that people are much more accepting, as they are around a lot of social issues, in 2023 than they were in 1978.