Published: Aug 18, 2001
By VICKIE BECK firstname.lastname@example.org
CLEARWATER - Imagine being separated from your whole world by just a few steps.
For nearly four years, Selma Trow of Palm Harbor, who has multiple sclerosis and uses a power wheelchair, couldn't leave home without help, and even then it was a struggle, said her husband, Philip Trow.
Things changed very much for the better when they received help from the Independent Living Program administered by the Pinellas County Community Development Department in Clearwater. Now the Trows have a ramp from the den to the garage, and a roll-in shower.
"It's a wonderful thing," Selma Trow said.
"Now I go out whenever I want, instead of waiting for someone to come help. And I can shower at my leisure."
But not everyone who needs such assistance qualifies for it.
The $2,500 independent living grants (and additional loans) are only available to homeowners of single-family dwellings appraised at $108,216 or less if they are within Pinellas County but outside the city limits of Clearwater, Largo, and St. Petersburg. Those larger cities are eligible for funding for their own programs.
Most residents of Pinellas' other cities are eligible through the county's program, but Belleair Shores and Redington Shores have opted out of it, saying they have no qualifying residents.
Renters Don't Qualify Those who live in rental properties are likewise excluded, as are mobile home owners whose homes were constructed before 1978 and who do not own both their land and trailer.
Also, program participants' income must not exceed 80 percent of the median income level for this area, said Julie Meconnahey, community development specialist.
Because many people with disabilities live in housing that excludes them from the county program, The Caring and Sharing Center for Independent Living in St. Petersburg is beginning a new program, RAMP (Residential Accessibility Through Modification Projects-Pinellas), to fill the gap.
"The ideal living situation for someone with low income is to own a mobile home - until they become disabled. Then these people need complicated, expensive ramps," program coordinator Mary Jensen said.
"We hear from a lot of people who can't have a grant. Sitting here in a wheelchair myself and telling people they can't have a wheelchair ramp is hard to do."
RAMP-Pinellas will attempt to serve people who fall through the gap: renters, with permission from their landlords, and mobile home owners, so people can at least get in their front door," said Jensen.
Volunteers Make It Happen RAMP-Pinellas' success is dependent on volunteer labor and contractors, as well as donated funds and supplies. Some $5,000 is needed right away, for the kickoff on Aug. 30 when the agency will participate in the United Way Day of Caring and build ramps for five people. Right now there are about 10 people identified as needing assistance, and the program hasn't even been advertised, said Jensen.
If necessary, RAMP-Pinellas will lend temporary, portable ramps until permanent ramps can be built.
Sharon Thomas of St. Petersburg is scheduled to receive a ramp on Aug. 30. Since January, her husband has been lowering her down the three steps of their home, despite his own back and shoulder problems.
Thomas has multiple sclerosis, lupus, and a broken leg, and sometimes uses a wheelchair. They did not wish to participate in a program available in the City of St. Petersburg because it required that a lien be placed on their property.
The ownership restrictions in the county program are due to the requirements of the State Housing Initiative Partnership, which currently supplies the funds.
"It's our understanding that if you spend any SHIP money at all on rental properties, you must monitor it annually for 15 years. And the benefits have to be tied to the tenants. Renters often don't stay in the same place that long," said Larry Yancey, senior community development specialist.
Often, the $2,500 grant won't cover all the modifications needed. In those cases, the county may provide low interest loans up to $10,000, or no-interest, no-payment loans of up to $30,000. In return, the county holds a lien against the property.
"How can we ask someone to put a lien on their house so they can get in and out of it? I just don't see how we can possibly do that," said Jensen.
The county is also trying to improve the situation.
"We have proposed an amendment to SHIP legislation that would eliminate the need to monitor the rental property if less than $2,000 was spent on modifications," said Yancey.
For information on the Independent Living Program, call 464-8210. For information on RAMP Pinellas call 577-0065.
Reporter Vickie Beck can be reached at (727) 799-7413.
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