Housing facilities for LGBT elders are slowly coming out of their California closets.
A new assisted living complex in Palm Springs that targets an aging LGBT demographic is one of a handful of new facilities serving seniors yearning for supportive and compassionate living environments.
In June, Hollywood’s second LGBT-friendly independent housing project opened, preceded last year by a stunning yet pricey continuing care facility for high-end clients in Sonoma County’s wine country.
California is vying for leadership in this movement as housing options open nationally in Philadelphia, Minneapolis, and Chicago to serve older LGBT adults who frequently struggle more than their straight counterparts.
“They don’t often have children and immediate family members who really play a critical role for the vast majority of seniors in this country,” says Seth Kilbourn, executive director of Openhouse, which provides housing and community services for LGBT seniors in San Francisco.
“The number one need we get for LGBT seniors is housing,” says Tripp Mills of the Los Angeles LGBT Center. “All of them are calling because they want to be safe in an LGBT environment.”
The Gay & Lesbian Elder Housing in Los Angeles, now defunct, first pioneered LGBT-friendly senior housing in 2007 with Triangle Square in Hollywood, offering a safe haven for seniors who have faced harassment – even arrest – in the past.
“No one is questioning who you are, what you’re wearing, what you’re thinking,” says Alice Herman, 78, who moved into Triangle Square after her partner of 45 years died, leaving her nearly penniless. “And who you are is OK.”
Even in long-term care facilities, life is often frightening for older LGBT adults.
Discrimination by staff and fellow residents facilities has forced many LGBT Baby Boomers back inside the very closet they fought so hard to escape.
‘There’s just so much fear,” says Cathy Koger, LGBT program coordinator for Peninsula Family Service in San Mateo.
Backed by several gay human rights organizations, the report “Stories from the Field” is rife with tales of verbal harassment, physical abuse, admission refusals, and denied care within the walls of long-term care sites. Partners and spouses have been denied power of attorney over medical choices; lovers are often hidden behind a veil of secrecy as “friend,” “brother” or “sister.”
The new Stonewall Gardens assisted living facility in Palm Springs – named after the infamous 1969 police raid and ensuing riots outside the Stonewall Inn in New York City – is awaiting final state approvals before opening. It features 24 unfurnished units, most of them studio apartments.
Palm Springs has likely the highest percentage of LGBT residents in the country. And with over 25% of its nearly 50,000 residents 65 and over, the need for LGBT-friendly housing will continue to grow.
In the 1980’s, initial discussions about LGBT-friendly senior housing were short-circuited by the looming AIDS crisis.
More recently, the 2008 financial services collapse scuttled plans in San Francisco for low-income housing that are just now bearing fruit.
Located near the city’s Castro district, 110 apartments will eventually serve as LGBT-friendly housing, with 40 scheduled to open in the first quarter of 2016. Two years later, the remaining 70 are scheduled to open. (Of the site 440 total units, 330 will be market rate and geared for families.)
The affordable housing will fill a pressing need for LGBT-friendly space in a city often considered the country’s epicenter for gay activism. Spearheaded by Openhouse, Kilbourn says the goal is to serve as the nexus for San Francisco’s LGBT elders.
“Our model has always been to build housing and to provide the kind of expanded services and activities that the entire LGBT community needs,” he says. “We’ll have a real community hub for the LGBT seniors around the city.”
The site will offer more than just affordable housing – the cheapest studios are $658 a month – but far more for a vulnerable population often ignored. Besides moving in the Openhouse offices, wraparound care will spur access to services not easily found: case managers, a “friendly visitor” program, wellness services, and social activities.
“Their history of seeking out help has not been good historically,” says Kilbourn. “There’s a lot of work that needs to be done to unpack that very wary LGBT senior.”
With nearly four million estimated LGBT seniors in the country today, the need for LGBT-friendly housing will continue to grow as 10,000 Baby Boomers reach 65 daily.
Opening last year for more affluent older LGBT adults is the wildly luxurious Fountaingrove Lodge in Santa Rosa. Its resort-like setting offers 103 units – some 2,000 square feet – that gush elegance within craftsman-style architecture. It features high-end dining, a “wine cave,” a fitness center, and movie theater.
Long-term care facilities angling for residents in a competitive long-term care housing environment have another reason to target LGBT clientele.
“It’s just good business,” says Tom Park, executive director of Belmont Village Hollywood, located near the thriving gay populous of West Hollywood. “We want to make sure we’ve inclusive of that demographic.”
Although not marketed strictly to LGBT residents, about 9% of Belmont Village residents come from the LGBT community.
Experts say the key to making housing comfortable for LGBT residents is staff training.
“The most important part of the sensitivity training is understanding what the typical 85, 95 year-old resident has gone through during their life,” says Steve Kregel of Northstar Senior Living, the developer of Stonewall Gardens. “There are (many LGBT seniors) who still haven’t come out of the closet.”
Park says at his Hollywood Heights facility – a block from Los Angeles’ famed Hollywood Bowl – LGBT residents only a decade apart have very different comfort levels when it comes to publicizing their sexual orientation.
“We are seeing the younger residents – 70 to 80 – becoming more comfortable about being a member of the LGBT community,” he says. Older Americans – those who were adults during World War II – are far less likely to be “out.”
Besides issues of tolerance and discrimination, there’s another key factor separating older adults when it comes to finding LGBT-friendly housing.
The tony Fountaingrove draws residents from around the country to its stunning grounds. Thirty miles from the Pacific Ocean and an hour’s drive from San Francisco, the prime spot caters to high-end clients who can afford the initiation fee – about $160,000 to over $900,000 – plus a monthly “amenities” fee ranging from around $4,000 to $6,000.
Rents at Stonewall Gardens assisted living start at $3,350 per month.
Yet like all LGBT-friendly housing, the sites are open to anyone who meets the age and income requirements.
“As we’ve talked to more and more seniors,” says Kilbourn, “LGBT residents want to live in a diverse environment. They’re not necessarily looking for a place that is 100% LGBT.”