When Travers Brown told his mum, Colleen, he wanted to move out of home and go flatting, she was terrified.
Travers, now 33, has Down’s syndrome, and Colleen hadn’t imagined a time when he’d ever be away from her.
“It’s hard letting go of any child,” Colleen says. “But when they have a disability, and you’ve been there all this time… I was obviously very worried for his safety.”
But Travers was determined. He wanted to do the same thing as his older brother and sister. Colleen remembers: “He was saying, ‘It’s my turn now, I want to go free.’”
She wasn’t sure how to make it happen at first, but two years on, Colleen can’t quite believe how well it’s worked out.
Travers lives in a big home in Howick, with sea views out to Rangitoto. There’s more than enough room for him, his three flatmates, and the caregivers they have with them constantly.
He’s clearly chuffed with the arrangement, proudly showing off his room that is stacked with DVDs, peering in the oven to work out what’s cooking for dinner, and wrapping his arm around his mum, kissing her on the cheek when she describes the struggle she had to go through to get him there.
Colleen thinks the flat is probably the first of its kind in New Zealand. No-one else had set up a funding model for multiple disabled people living together, all needing care. Most do it individually, but Travers was clear that he wanted to live with friends.
The flatmates hand-picked each other after meeting at a community day centre. All four sets of parents had countless other conversations, as they discussed every possible concern.
“Each time it came back to the four young people, and exactly what they wanted,” says Colleen.
The flatmates all had to be independently assessed for funding, and it got to the point where the local Work and Income office actually knew Colleen by name.
“They’d say, ‘Oh, hi Colleen, you’re back again,’” she laughs.
And it wasn’t finding money to pay for the flat and caregivers that was the only problem.
Colleen and Travers were knocked back by five landlords, who didn’t want to rent to the disabled. Colleen found it difficult to understand. “It was very upsetting and unexpected. But then we saw this place and thought it was ideal.”
The landlord didn’t have any qualms, and as soon as the lease was signed, Travers knew what he wanted.
“He couldn’t wait to clear out his room. It was like a swarm of locusts had come through!”
The four flatmates have astonished everyone with the speed at which they’ve settled in. Colleen says Travers is still tweaking and adjusting things to get the house just right.
“Every time Travers comes back, he says, ‘What can I take that I haven’t got?’”
He lives the kind of normal, happy suburban existence that Colleen once worried would never be achievable. Children who live next door wave as they walk past on their way to school. A group of elderly men at the RSA have been teaching Travers and his flatmate, Richard, to play pool. A neighbour over the back fence passes over fresh vegetables from her garden.
“They’ve always wanted to be just another house in the street,” Colleen says. “We’ve tried to get them to do everything everyone else does, so they can be regular people.”
For Colleen and her husband, Travers leaving home has meant freedom for them, too. Recently, they went on holiday for the first time in 31 years, without having to make sure one of their other children was there to keep an eye on Travers.
“We are finally experiencing that feeling my friends have had for the last 20 years. It’s been quite exciting.”