#022: Lessons in Building Community, Housing, and a Good Life, with Janet Klees and Members of the Deohaeko Support Network

August 3, 2017

lessons in building community housing and a good life with janet klees and members of the deohaeko support network

It is my pleasure to bring you part 4 of 6 of the mini-series on housing for people with a disability on the Empowering Ability podcast. In this episode, I bring you the story of Rougemount Co-operative Housing, and the Deohaeko Support Network– a co-operative housing project led by families that has embodied diversity, inclusion and community since its inception in the mid 1980’s. I had the pleasure of visiting the community for a guided tour, and I sat down to interview 5 members of the community. In this blog and podcast, you are going to hear the story of the Rougemount Housing Co-operative & the Deohaeko Support Network, learn what intentional community is and how to build it, learn the key factors that made Rougemount a success for people with a disability, and get a different perspective on creating a home for people with a disability.

Narrating the story of Rougemount and Deohaeko is Janet Klees. Janet has been involved in the lives of people with disabilities, their families, and allies in community for over 30 years. Until recently, she has been coordinator with the family-governed Deohaeko Support Network for over 20 years. She is the author of three books which are directly rooted in the Deohaeko experience, (We Come Bearing Gifts; Our Presence has Roots; Deohaeko Decades) and which are now sold around the world to present the unique options of this family group.  Currently, Janet is the Executive Director with a family support organization, the Durham Association for Family Respite Services, with hopes of sharing her learning with a wider group of families in Durham Region and trying to affect larger scale supports and changes for families.

The Story of Rougemount and Deohaeko

Paraphrasing from the podcast Janet shares:

“In the middle of crisis, there is always opportunity. In the 1980’s in the Greater Toronto Area there was a housing crisis, much like there is today, and a group of 7 families came together with the goal of creating ordinary life in ordinary neighborhoods for their sons and daughters with a developmental disability.

At the time, the Federal Government of Canada and Provincial Government of Ontario was funding Housing co-operatives where the people don’t own the units, but there are permanent tenants as long as they follow the rules of the co-op set by the co-op board. It just so happens that Rougemount was the very last co-operative housing project that was funded by the Canadian Government.

The building was constructed with 105 units, where the 7 sons and daughters with a disability would live in this community. There are approximately 200 residents living at Rougemount and the residents were selected to represent the ethnic, demographic, and socioeconomic makeup of the surrounding region with no more than 10% of population having a disability, which is natural in this region (as it is in most areas).

The founding families of Rougemount then created the Deohaeko Support Network, which is a group of families that think about the natural and paid supports for their 7 sons and daughters in the community.”

Intentional Community

There is a lot of discussion in the disability sector about what community is and the definitions can vary widely. The conversation can range from placing groups of people (such as people with a disability and seniors) together in a building to support each other, to a diverse group of individuals coming together to build relationships and share their gifts with each other.

Amazing community builder, Linda Dawe shares what she has learned about building an intentional community at Rougemount over the last 25 years:

“Intentional community is not something that you measure – it is something that you feel. It isn’t a thing, it is in the hearts of people, and people embrace it to different degrees. One of the things that was important in creating the intentional community at Rougemount was the diversity in the residents that represented the actual community.  Not placing groups of people together, such as seniors and people with disabilities. Intentional community at Rougemount started out as a grand thing, but simply it is just being in relationship with each other. People living well together. It requires effort, consciousness, and core people to hold the values of the community.

Janet Klees adds: “Simply put, community is being a good neighbor. At Rougemount people look for opportunities to be good neighbors and then talk about it, and hold up examples of it.

Intentional community isn’t a building – it is a mindset! We can take the ideas with us, and many groups have. People have come into Rougemount and have seen how it works, and then brought it into neighborhoods with single family homes, and brought it into condo buildings. Rougemount is just an example of how it can work.

On the podcast, Rougemount residents and supporters Donna Mitchell (25 year resident, Deohaeko member), Tiffany Dawe (25 year resident, Deohaeko member), Shirley Brown (25 year resident), and Soraida Fonseca (Supporter to Tiffany Dawe) share their story of intentional community and community contributions. Through their voices it is evident that everyone is an equal contributor to this community. People with a disability aren’t viewed as a burden, they are valued as equals in the community that provided significant contributions just like everyone else.

Lessons from Deohaeko

5 Essential tips in shaping aspects of the community, invisible support, and making principled decisions that ensure that people are seen as ordinary neighbours sharing much common ground.

*As described by Janet Klees on the podcast

1. Diversity. Dedication to supporting, shaping, and holding a very typical community – less than 10% disability. It is the diversity of the co-op that makes it work. Diversity first before building intentional community.

2. Where people lived. The people with disabilities living at Rougemount live in apartments across the building, not segregated on one floor. This allowed people to be known by their individual identity, not just by the identity of their disability.

3. Support identified by their name, and deflected to person and their interests. We helped new support workers be thoughtful on how they introduced themselves. When support introduced themselves they 1) identified themselves by their name only, 2) directed the conversation back to the individual they were supporting, and 3) spoke to that individual’s interest. (Example: “Hi I am Sorida, I’m hanging out with Tiffany today.  We are headed to the art gallery today – have you seen her art? You should come over to her apartment sometime and see her art.”)

4. Discouraged segregated activities. When new committees were starting we had lots of conversation about who would participate. We thought about who from Deohaeko would participate in committees and chose not to have too many people with a disability on one committee because it then becomes difficult for people to build relationships.

5. No shared support. The reason is that the families didn’t want people to see the same supporter with different people with disabilities because then people look at people with disabilities as all the same. Rather than saying different people need different kinds of support. Even in a crisis support wasn’t grouped. We figured different layers of support that would come forward in these situation. We really focused on people having their own unique and individual lives.

*All of this is to focus on creating natural relationships, and it works.

Creating Housing Solutions Today

Janet has carried the thinking from her work with Deohaeko forward into her work today with Durham Association for Family Respite Services.

Janet shares:

“Housing is a community issue, not a disability issue. In our most recent housing project, we partnered with Brockville and District Association for Community Involvement on a housing project called, ‘Housing is a Community Issue’. We asked families who were interested in housing to join us in discovering housing solutions together and 35 families showed up. This is incredible because we told the families up front that we don’t have any money to give. It shows how understanding families are that they are going to be part of the solution.

Even in this housing crisis, people are still finding housing. With our project, we are thinking about what are the ways that people are finding to build, buy, rent, and to figure out housing. Then asking, ‘why can’t these ways fit families that are looking for housing?’

This is not a Ministry of Community and Social Services (MCSS) issue, it belongs with housing. This is an affordability issue, not a disability issue. If people need renovations it is a cost issue. We need to ally ourselves with all the people that are struggling for housing. There are organizations like Habitat for Humanity, and Options for Homes that we can ally with. If MCSS is involved in housing they build a service, not a home. Families only have to think about their own son or daughter, and think about works best.”

In a recent housing forum in Durham Region, 70 families gathered to discuss person centered housing for their sons and daughters. The group compiled a list of 7 recommendations for the Government of Ontario, and for all of us to think about as we work toward creating a good life for people with disabilities.

1. Home, housing and support are 3 different things and must be thought of separately.

2. Most housing challenges are affordability, not disability.

3. People with disability contribute to their communities, they are not a burden.

4.Getting good housing and support doesn’t mean taking away the individual’s control of their life.

5.Providing renovation dollars allows families to be creative with their current home today (stabilize current situation), and allows for flexible housing in the future.

6. Stop funding congregated mega projects for people with disabilities, and disabilities / seniors. Commit to typical housing options and neighbourhoods.

7. Where there are Families that are willing to create a home in community the government needs to support with resources. These are cheapest, most effective models, and they are currently the least funded.

There are so many things I am taking away from my time with Janet, Linda, Tiffany, Shirley, Donna, and Sorida and grateful to them for sharing their experiences, and what they have learned.  

The Key Takeaways for me are:

1. Building Intentional Community starts with rich diversity and upholding neighbourly values.

2. Fostering Intentional Community requires us to get a common understanding of each other, and through that understanding building trust and respect. From here we can show love to each other in small little ways, and uphold those acts of love.

3. Housing and support are best viewed as separate.

4. Be intentional in creating opportunities for people with disabilities to build relationship. Do not group them in housing or support.

5. As families, we need be a part of the solution. Design our lives, take control, and ask for help. We assume that someone is going to take care of things for us, but that someone is never going to come.

To end, here is a beautiful quote from community builder, Linda Dawe “Everyone needs good housing. Once they have good housing they are able to experience good things in their life.”

Our mini-series on housing for people with disabilities is continuing so go ahead and Subscribeto the mailing list to get all 6 episodes sent directly to your inbox!

Love & Respect,



Purchase These Books to Learn More Lesson’s from Deohaeko:

“We come bearing gifts” by Janet Klees 

“Our Presence has roots” by Janet Klees

Learn more about Deohaeko: Click Here 

Learning events In Durham Region: Click Here

Book a study tour to learn about Rougemount and Deohaeko: Click Here

Contact Janet Klees: [email protected]

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