'Freeing people who are trapped in nursing homes'

TIM KINNIRY, 35, who has lived with cerebral palsy since birth and has always depended on a wheelchair to make his way in the world, has one lifelong dream.

"I want to be an Average Joe," he said.

Kinniry's three brothers - one with a milder form of CP; two of them able-bodied - all have jobs, families, unrestricted lives. So did his late sister, Dawn Marie, who is still very much a part of Kinniry's thoughts.

"I want everything that comes along with being a person," Kinniry said, sitting in his power wheelchair in his one-bedroom South Philly apartment and looking at photos of his siblings and their families - the only art he has chosen to hang on his walls. "Once I get an idea in my head, you can't talk me out of it."

Kinniry's pursuit of an Average Joe existence once left him so depressed that he attempted suicide.

But he's 10 years past that now and has been living his dream since January, when he moved out of the Inglis House nursing home and into the Marine Club Condominiums, on Broad Street and Washington Avenue, a mainstream residential community with 293 apartments, an in-house health club and private gardens.

Kinniry is living in one of 11 condos owned by Liberty Housing Development Corp. - a nonprofit that is using $5 million in federal and city funding to buy apartments in "able-bodied" residential developments, retrofit them for handicapped accessibility and move physically disabled people like Kinniry from nursing homes to independent living.

Kinniry contributes a percentage of his low income toward housing expenses.

Liberty's chief executive officer, Bruce Connus, said the mainstreaming concept differs dramatically from the traditional use of federal funds to place the physically disabled in nursing homes. So much so, he said, that Liberty's 16 independent-living apartments and the 41 scheduled for development this year put Philadelphia in the national forefront of "freeing people who are trapped in nursing homes."

"Liberty Housing has over 100 people on our [waiting] list who are now trapped in a nursing home because of the lack of accessible affordable housing in Philadelphia," Connus said.

"When we were showing [newly available] units to people who had been in nursing homes for one to 20 years, people who were going from not being able to make any decisions to having total control over their lives, we would see tears in their eyes," he said. "And it was hard not to tear up myself."

Eric Blumenfeld, president of EB Realty Management Corp., who developed Marine Club Condominiums and who sold 11 of them to Liberty for occupancy by the physically disabled, is a hero to Connus.

"Isn't this what urban life is supposed to be about?" Blumenfeld said. "People from all walks of life, from all different challenges, living together under one roof?"

Kathleen Griffin, a retired concert pianist who lives at Marine Club Condos, is thrilled with her new neighbors.

"It takes a very progressive, compassionate developer to make this type of residential mix a reality," she said. "It takes someone who looks at humanity and thinks, 'Anything is possible.' "

A year ago, Deborah and Walter Thomas thought nothing was possible.

Deborah had just been diagnosed with lung cancer so severe, it forced her to leave her retail- sales job. The recession cost Walter his job as a private-company bus driver.

The couple, both 51 and married for 32 years, couldn't pay their mortgage and lost their West Oak Lane home.

"The cancer hit my wife so hard, she was close to death," Walter said. "The doctors at Einstein Medical Center saved her."

Deborah was sent to a nursing home, where she watched both of her roommates die from terminal cancer and felt trapped by the depression all around her.

Looking for a way out, Walter found Liberty Housing, which in turn found the Thomases a one-bedroom condo at Marine Club. Deborah loves the combination of privacy and the feeling of life all around them.

"We hear young voices and young laughter in the hallway when the women who attend the dance school across the street come home to their apartments," Deborah said. "I cherish living here every day. It's like having a second chance in life."

On a recent afternoon, Kinniry sat in his power wheelchair under his 11-foot ceiling, bathed in the wintry light coming from his huge living-room window. He said that he actually lives and sleeps in his living room because he has allocated his bedroom as a private space for the aides who provide 12 hours of daily care, including an 11 p.m.-to-5 a.m. shift.

"Independent living is not for everybody," said Jae Y. Lee, who coordinates the Community Reentry Program at Inglis House, a nursing-care facility for disabled adults, and worked with Kinniry to get him ready for his new life.

"It is not safe for someone who does not have the cognitive abilities to direct their care by remembering to pay bills, call doctors, take pills and call the agency if a health-care aide doesn't show up for a shift," Lee said.

But for people like Kinniry, Lee said, independent living is "a sense of freedom, a sense of 'I'm in control of my life. I live in my own space.' I love to see people like him move out of a nursing home and live happily and safely."

In a sense, Kinniry has spent his whole life preparing for this moment.

"From the time he was little," said his mom, Donna, "if the boys were out front playing street hockey, he would sit in front of the goal in his wheelchair and play goalie. I would get calls from the neighbors: 'Donna, car's coming. They're not moving him out of the way.' "

Kinniry learned to move himself, which turned out to be a life lesson.

"Once he gets an idea in his head, Tim won't change it," Donna said. "That's what has really gotten him as far as he has gone."

And she has the gray hairs to prove it.

"When Tim was living at Inglis House, which is near City Avenue, he wasn't allowed to take his wheelchair out on the streets because he hadn't passed the wheelchair-driving test," Donna said.

"He went out anyway," she said. "One of his supervisors saw him coming down Belmont Avenue, which is busy and dangerous, and grounded him.

"I'm at work when I get a call from a lawyer who says, 'Are you aware that Inglis House is taking away your son's independence?' I tell him, 'No, they are saving his life.' Tim had contacted the lawyer but hadn't mentioned failing the wheelchair driving test."

Donna lobbied strongly for Kinniry to go to a high school for physically-disabled students, but her son insisted on being mainstreamed at Bensalem High School.

He had such a great experience that he was shocked when, after graduation, he applied to dozens of supermarkets and chain stores, hoping to be a greeter, but could not get a job.

"No one ever said it was because I'm physically disabled," Kinniry said. "But I'm not stupid.

"I got depressed and I tried to kill myself," he said. "I was alone at home. I tried to drown myself in the creek behind the house."

Donna came home on lunch break from her job as a switchboard operator, saw that Kinniry wasn't in the house, rushed outside and found his empty wheelchair standing next to the storm- drainage ditch.

"Tim was in shallow water and he was disoriented," Donna said. "He knew I would be coming home for lunch, so I look at it more as a cry for help than a suicide attempt, but it was very scary. That was when we looked into Inglis House, where he could be with people all the time, make some friends and not be so lonely."

At Inglis House, Kinniry created a job for himself: buying candy at discount stores and reselling it to the nursing-home residents at a small profit. He rides public transit from his new South Philly home to Inglis House every day to sell candy.

"I'm just the Average Joe who goes to work and comes home and watches sports - and, I hope, eventually gets married and has a family," Kinniry said.

"When I was a kid, Mom always said to me, 'When the boys and Dawn get married, it's going to be just you and me.' I got ticked off at her because it felt like she didn't think I was going to do the stuff everybody else does. But I am."

His mom agreed. "It's hard for a mother to admit after taking care of him for his first 27 years," Donna said, "but Tim's made a life for himself. I am so proud of him."

When last seen, Kinniry had just wheeled in from the foul weather and immediately instructed the young woman working the Marine Club front desk to tell this reporter what a great guy he is.

"You want me to tell him about your wife and two mistresses?" the woman deadpanned. "No!" Kinniry said in mock horror.

The two went at it for awhile, Kinniry laughing, trading wisecracks, hanging out with his new friend in the lobby of his apartment house - just like an Average Joe.