Each family made a financial commitment — although they declined to give an exact amount — and held numerous fundraisers, taking their story to anyone who would listen. The bricks and mortar are only one part of the equation. Services such as aides, transportation, recreation and personal care are managed by Clearbrook, an Arlington Heights-based agency, and are paid for, in part, with public funding.

One of the most expensive items was an elevator, needed only for Josh Schur. His parents argued that this wasn't cost-efficient, but the other families insisted that it stay in the budget. If this venture is to work, they said, it has to work for everybody.

Still, debate could turn heated at times. Should they have live-in staff or employees working an eight-hour shift? And how would they juggle residents' many dietary needs?

"I couldn't believe we could get so far ... only to have it all fall apart over a gluten-free challah," Erenberg said.

And there also was opposition from the neighborhood. Rumors percolated about a halfway house for unwed mothers and ex-convicts. "Anytime you have change, you bring in fearfulness," said Silverstein, who quelled concerns at a block meeting.

Finally, in late December, the young men moved into their new home, a triumphant moment, as the residents checked out their new rooms. Another residence for six young women is scheduled to open in Skokie this week.

The benefits of small, family-scale housing versus large institutions is a matter of individualization and autonomy. Like anyone else, people with disabilities are happier when the environment adapts to their needs and interests, from what they want for dinner to what movie they want to watch to what time they want to go to bed.

Jane Doyle has seen the growth of this movement since opening the Center for Independent Futures in Evanston, which trains parents to create housing for their children.

A decade ago, Doyle was a trailblazer when she and another mother started the nonprofit to help their own two disabled daughters, who were eager to take the next step after high school, just like everyone else. A bed at a state facility in Peoria isn't what the mothers had in mind.

After one particularly disheartening day perusing traditional venues, Doyle announced she was done. "Why try to fix an overburdened system?"

They opened their first home, a three-flat in Evanston, in 2004. To date, the center has created 12 residences, mostly in Illinois. The nonprofit is working with seven family groups, from Sarasota, Fla., to Los Angeles.

"When families get together and have a chance to be creative, it's amazing what can happen," Doyle said.

Many of the inquiries to the Center for Independent Futures come from siblings of disabled adults who suddenly find themselves thrust into the role of caregiver after the death of a parent, Doyle said. "They have their own jobs, children, lives — and they call up and ask, 'What do we do?' They have no preparation whatsoever."

Joan Katz, one of the Libenu parents, was determined that would not happen. Her son, Jacob Mosbacher, who has Down syndrome, has been the beneficiary of years of enrichment and learning. At 25 he is an artist who has displayed at city galleries, has his own website and proudly pointed out the colors and finishes he selected for his new home, while she beamed.

"As a parent, this is a blessing, but for siblings, it's a double blessing," she said. "And for Jacob? It means he has a life."

brubin@tribune.com