TRENTON — Five years ago, Chelsea Libitzki was fighting for her life. Now she is fighting for somewhere to live it on her terms.
The 26-year-old Trenton woman was paralyzed from the chest down in a 2010 accident in Bar Harbor. Since then she has worked hard to regain as much normalcy as possible. She has limited use of her right arm, allowing her to navigate her own wheelchair and take college courses online. She also teaches dance lessons at her family’s studio, Libitzki School of Dance in Ellsworth.
“My life is completely different than it was,” Libitzki explained. “I’m pretty much dependent on others. But my mind, I’m still independent.”
One of the most important factors in Libitzki’s recovery and adjustment to a life with disabilities has been living at home.
Professional caregivers provide in-home support for seven or eight hours each day. Otherwise, Libitzki’s parents, Ed and Cheryl, handle all aspects of her care.
In mid-April, the Libitzkis learned the monthly rent on their home of three years was increasing dramatically. They can’t afford to pay.
The news precipitated a weeks-long, frustrating and fruitless search for an affordable rental that can accommodate Libitzki’s needs.
The family needs a one-story rental with doorways, halls and a bathroom wide enough for a motorized wheelchair.
They spent over $3,000 installing an accessible shower in their current rental.
So far, the rentals they’ve found that might work have turned out to be too expensive.
The family’s budget is roughly $850 a month — no more than $1,000.
“It’s just so stressful,” said Cheryl Libitzki. “The stress of it is really taking its toll.”
Cheryl has the dance studio and her husband runs a small welding and sandblasting business. Both businesses have faced economic hardships in recent years.
Ed was recently hospitalized with pneumonia and bronchitis during the rental hunt.
The rental market in the Trenton/Ellsworth area is tight enough this time of year without throwing a disability into the mix, Libitzki says.
“It’s just there’s nowhere for me…” Libitzki said, her voice trailing off. “My parents could probably sleep on a couch or whatever if they absolutely had to, but nowhere is accessible for me. Usually the bathroom is the problem.”
Some of the handicapped-accessible rental options are in income-eligible housing complexes.
The family has applied, but they’re not sure if their income will be low enough to qualify. Plus the process takes time and they were supposed to be out of their current rental on Monday.
Duane Bartlett, director of operations at the Mount Desert Island and Ellsworth housing authorities, said a family of three would have to make less than $46,000 a year, including disability payments, to qualify for housing assistance.
“It can create kind of a donut hole,” he said, in which a family might make too much to qualify for subsidized housing but not enough to afford something that meets their needs.
Moreover, even for those who do qualify, the wait for an accessible two-bedroom apartment could be a long one.
“I think right now the average wait time for two-bedrooms in Ellsworth is well over 400 days, and that’s if you’re at the top of the list,” said Terrance Kelley, executive director of the housing authorities.
He said all of his organizations’ services hinge on income eligibility.
He said one possible scenario for a family in the Libitzkis’ situation is to see if a housing program would be willing to accept the disabled adult child as head of household and her parents as caregivers rather than co-renters so that their income would not be considered.
“There are no easy answers,” Kelley said.
Ideally, every effort would be made to keep a person at home rather than in a skilled nursing facility, which can cost upward of $100,000 a year, Kelley said.
Cheryl said she knows that there might be more housing options for Chelsea alone, but the family does not want to be separated.
The Libitzkis encourage anyone with information about a potential rental to call 266-5691 or 669-9452 or email [email protected]