Five years ago, three strangers moved into a one-story home on Shady Avenue in Squirrel Hill. Located across the street from the Children’s Institute, the residence was centrally located for neighborhood walks or easy access to shopping in Squirrel Hill’s business district. Though the house wasn’t far from the inhabitants’ previous residences, relocation was a leap for each of the young men, as Jason Baker, Kevin Ginsburg and Max Steinberg had never lived away from their families. Moving represented an unknown, but the opportunity for a Community Living Arrangement (CLA), a first in the area, sparked interest.
Months earlier, through public discussions, representatives of Jewish Residential Services shared information on the CLA and its prospect of providing a permanent living space with 24-hour care where Shabbat and Jewish holidays would be celebrated. JRS staff promised prospective families the Solomon and Sarah Goldberg House would enable three individuals with intellectual disabilities a chance to enjoy a safe, well-maintained home, and the prospect of greater communal integration.
There was only one catch. Eligible residents required a consolidated waiver.
“It’s kind of the golden ticket,” said Alison Karabin, a licensed social worker who serves as project manager of JRS’ families in transition program.
Pennsylvania’s Medical Assistance program offers various waivers for eligible individuals with intellectual disabilities and/or autism. However, each waiver provides limits for services provided, according to Disability Rights Pennsylvania, an independent nonprofit protection and advocacy agency.
Whereas the person/family directed support waiver provides non-residential services and caps individual expenditures at $33,000 per year, the consolidated waiver provides residential and non-residential services without set cost restrictions.
“If you’re someone that needs 24/7 support and supervision, you’re really limited in what you can do,” said Karabin. A consolidated waiver “is not a blank check, but there’s no cap to it.”
The average cost to serve an individual with a consolidated waiver is $143,154, noted Peri Jude Radecic, CEO of Disability Rights Pennsylvania, in testimony to the Pennsylvania State Department of Human Services.
Because of the financial abilities provided by a consolidated waiver, demand is high. Due to a funding shortage, however, individuals can spend years waiting for a consolidated waiver, said Karabin.
As of May 31, 2019, 13,015 Pennsylvanians with intellectual disabilities, including 1,079 Allegheny County residents, were waiting for community supports and services, according to the PA Waiting List Campaign.
Individuals, like Baker, who waited 13 years before receiving a consolidated waiver, can spend considerable time sitting on a list, explained Caitlin Lasky, JRS’ director of development and communications.
Although a 13,015-person sum demonstrates tremendous need, the figure also represents some progress, as in April 2006 there were 24,500 people waiting for service, according to the Pennsylvania Office of Developmental Programs.
For those on a waiting list, and lacking a consolidated waiver, it’s difficult to obtain residence in a CLA.
When it came time to filling Goldberg House, each of the three men had a consolidated waiver. With the support of their families, JRS and the Verland Foundation — which partnered with JRS on Goldberg House — Baker, Ginsburg and Steinberg moved into the yellowish brick ranch on Shady Avenue in 2014.
At the time, other CLAs existed in the larger Pittsburgh area but Goldberg House was uniquely positioned to grant these individuals coveted independence and familiarity, explained Lasky.
“Social capital is really important for people in general but specifically for people with disabilities because that really impacts their physical and mental health,” she said. “Being around community, where they grew up, is something that is really priceless.”
Each day’s activities at Goldberg House represent a dedication to individual and communal existence. After waking in the morning — Baker, Ginsburg and Steinberg each have their own decorated bedrooms — the three residents eat breakfast and head out to day programs, jobs or activities.
“The staff plans a lot for them, their families plan a lot for them,” said Karabin. “In some ways, it’s just like you or I that we have our interests or passions and we do them, but these are people who need a lot to get them to and from the activities and to help them.”
Verland staff helps with dressing, bathing and transportation, and although Baker, Ginsburg and Steinberg have separate schedules, the group gathers regularly at sites like the Friendship Circle or Jewish Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh.
For the past five years, the three have volunteered monthly at the Jewish Family and Community Service Squirrel Hill Food Pantry.
“Max, Jason and Kevin have become members of our family,” said Matthew Bolton, the pantry’s director. “These guys are so hard-working, and we all appreciate their sense of humor and dedication.”
Each night, Baker, Ginsburg and Steinberg eat together in Goldberg House’s dining room. Meals are prepared in a large kosher kitchen, with two sinks and two dishwashers. Shabbat and Jewish holidays are regularly observed. On Sukkot, inside the backyard sukkah, homemade decorations are hung beside those gifted from friends and supporters.
“There’s a lot that the house celebrates with the community, but there are a lot of things, like Chanukah coming up, that they like (to do) on their own,” said Karabin. “It’s a Jewish home with three very different Jewish people, which I think is a good analogy for the Jewish community, where we’re small enough that there’s room for everyone but they all come at it from different backgrounds.”
A half-decade together has brought the Jewish men and their families closer.
“Max, Kevin and Jason are now like siblings,” said Terry Feinberg Steinberg in a statement. “They’re loyal. They protect one another.”
“There is support and camaraderie,” echoed Barbara Ginsburg in a statement.
Goldberg House was achieved through the generosity and vision of Jane Yahr and Barbara Goldberg, trustees of the Solomon and Sarah Goldberg Memorial Fund at the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh and nieces of Sarah and Solomon Goldberg, noted Lasky.
Given Goldberg House’s success, JRS and Verland are opening a second CLA in Squirrel Hill in the spring. Located on Mt. Royal Road, the home will have a kosher kitchen, celebrate Shabbat and the Jewish holidays, offer 24-hour care and provide an opportunity for independence and integration similar to Goldberg House, she said.
The hope with the Mt. Royal house is to follow the pattern of Goldberg House, and create bonds with neighbors, thereby fostering integration with the community at large.
“One of the goals of JRS is inclusion, and it sounds very Pollyanna, but everyone benefits from inclusion,” Karabin said. “It’s not just the three guys that live at Goldberg house. It’s their parents and their grandparents and their siblings, and it goes out well beyond the immediate families.
“I think sometimes people really overlook the things that people with disabilities, especially intellectual disabilities, can contribute to the community, but I think everyone is enriched by an inclusive community, not just the people that you think are the beneficiaries of that. I think the neighbors, the congregations, the program — I mean, we all benefit from it.” PJC
Adam Reinherz can be reached at email@example.com.