This two-part series examines the issue of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered (LGBT) senior housing and the unique challenges gay seniors face as they enter their retirement years.
Last week, Part One examined its history in Seattle along with the initial attempt to build an affordable, gay-affirmative senior housing complex on Capitol Hill.
This week, Part Two examines the current attempt to revive this vision and the unique and creative solutions seniors have come up with on their own given the current dearth of affordable and inclusive senior housing options.
With 74 million Baby Boomers retiring by 2008, it's rare for a media cycle to pass without mention of Social Security, Medicare or the new prescription drug benefit. But distinct from these concerns that affect all senior citizens are a series of equally important concerns for a sub-set seniors. Will I be able to find housing that's both safe and welcoming? Will I be able to retire to a place that meets my unique needs? Will I be able to afford such a place? In short, can I age with pride?
David Haack, the chair of the Department of Social and Health Services LGBT Advisory board, recalled his first encounter with homophobia at a nursing home. As a young nurse at the facility, he had befriended a World War II veteran who also happened to be gay.
"One day I was in a meeting with the facility administrator who instructed me to report any 'unusual activity' from my friend. She then told me that if he did anything out of line she would throw him out immediately as she didn't like his 'type' at her community," Haack said.
Haack's experience is not uncommon and while society continues to become more accepting of homosexuality, gay seniors still face unique challenges as they enter their elder years and need to consider their options for housing.
Haack also pointed out that, currently, senior housing needs are often met by religious groups and organizations and, even though many receive funding from the state, they are not barred from discriminating based on sexual orientation. The DSHS does not require state contract providers to be LGBT-friendly. Hence, being gay only adds to difficulties many seniors face as they enter their later years.
Some LGBT seniors are not waiting for community organizations or commercial companies to build what they need. When Queen City shelved its initial plan to build gay-affirmative senior housing on Capitol Hill, Nancy Nystrom, co-founder of The Red Dot Girls, a collective of elder lesbians that provided services to each other, struck out on her own.
Using the notion of cluster housing, Nystrom decided to create a collective with seven senior lesbians. Their goal: a co-owned, affordable housing complex that each could retire to. Six years later, their goal has been realized and Kits Harbor was born.
"There's nothing out there for old lesbians," Nystrom said. "And since no one's doing it for us, we needed to do it ourselves."
Nystrom purchased approximately 2 acres of land nestled against the majestic Illahee Preserve in Kitsap County. Currently two houses have been built and a third is in the works. Each house will be connected by a walkway and the residents will provide for each other's needs. Ultimately, Nystrom envisions six houses total, all co-owned by the collective.
Members buy into the collective and then pay a monthly fee. Once they pass away, however, they cannot will their share to their next of kin. Instead, it is donated back into the collective so another can later benefit. This ensures that Kits Harbor is a multi-generational venture.
"We want to create a holy place," Nystrom said. "We want some place that's peaceful, ours, maintainable and will never go away."
Part of that peace is Nystrom's vision of Kits Harbor's connection to the surrounding habitat. Kits Harbor abuts the Illahee Preserve and the latter is off-limits to developers. She views Kits Harbor as a natural extension of the preserve where Chief Seattle once walked and whose name comes from Chinook meaning "place of rest."
Another key component to the success of Kits Harbor is its communal financing model that runs directly counter to the corporate model employed by commercial assisted-living facilities. This model allows Nystrom and her collective to maintain the affordability of the project and their own independence, key priorities for all seniors as they age. Two financiers approached Nystrom to help fund the project but she turned them both away.
"We used to say, 'nothing about us without us.' We're saying this is all about us. It's no one else's thing but our own," she said. "That sense of 'ours' is so important. That sense of ownership is linked to independence."
Queen City resurrected
Even though Queen City initially failed to raise enough capital to build their senior housing project on Capitol Hill, they have not abandoned their dream since they still see a need for gay-affirmative, senior housing in Seattle.
"The tide has just turned. LGBT elders are getting to an age when they want their housing needs addressed," said Shannon Thomas, Queen City's executive directory. "It's time to increase our visibility and stand up for LGBT seniors."
Indeed, Queen City just completed a strategic plan, the result of an 18-month effort. That plan calls for a series of steps that will, hopefully, lead to America's first inclusive senior housing project that's connected to a community-wide LGBT center.
"We envision building a community with apartments for seniors of low-, moderate- and above-moderate-incomes where LGBT seniors of all races and ethnicity can come together to live with pride," Thomas said. "Seattle is ready for this project. The fact that we are the only LGBT community development corporation in the country with both a senior housing initiative and LGBT community center has us uniquely positioned for making social change possible."
By connecting senior housing to an LGBT center, Queen City hopes to reduce senior isolation, provide in-house social services, encourage inter-generational co-mingling and, ultimately, preserve gay history.
Queen City plans to conduct a needs assessment in early 2006. They will also seek out financial backers and shore up their current projects including the LGBT community center. Then, they will complete a feasibility study with the ultimate goal of breaking ground on their senior housing project within the next five years.
With the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force estimating that there are currently 3 million LGBT seniors age 65 and over, with another million joining their ranks in the next 25 years, Queen City's efforts and collectives like Nystrom's cannot come a moment too soon.
Both parts of this series are available on-line at www.capitolhill times.com
Freelance writer Mario Paduano lives on Capitol Hill and can be reached at editor@capitolhill times.com.