SPECIAL REPORT: ‘You can’t let adversity get you down’
By Kathi Wolfe
“I did my dirt,” said Cedric Burgess, a black gay man and longtime Washington, D.C. resident who grew up in the District. “I was young and full of fun!”
Today, Burgess, 61, is a recovering alcoholic who suffers from depression. He’s been HIV positive for more than 30 years. “I live from check to check,” said Burgess, who receives Social Security disability benefits.
Before undergoing a hip replacement four years ago, he struggled to walk up to his second-story apartment.
“It is a wonder to be able to walk without my cane,” Burgess said. “No matter what pain pills I took, I couldn’t get to sleep. You don’t realize how much pain you’re in. You adapt. I couldn’t cross my legs. Steps weren’t an option.”
At 19, Burgess came out to his family.
“I was accepted by my family. I was taken in,” he said, “that was a blessing!”
For some years, he worked in a series of clerical jobs. In 1982, Burgess, then living and working as an administrative assistant in Atlanta, was hit by a drunk driver. The accident left him with back pain, nerve damage and sciatica. For two years, unable to work, he did physical therapy. In 1984, Burgess returned to work. After returning to D.C., he went back to doing clerical work.
During the AIDS epidemic, his family confronted Burgess.
“They said ‘you gotta get tested,’” he said. “In 1991, after I found out I was positive, I took a two-week vacation. I got HIV through a blood transfusion I received when I had my accident. They weren’t screening transfusions for HIV then.”
In 2006, his back pain became so severe that Burgess left the workforce. He said he retired from the Green Door, a D.C. organization that helps people with mental challenges, where he worked as a program assistant.
“You can’t let adversity get you down, you have to have a positive attitude,” Burgess added. Fortunately, he said, social safety net programs help him to make ends meet. In addition to his monthly disability check, Burgess receives food stamps. His health care is covered by Medicare and Medicaid.
“I receive energy assistance from Pepco and two-thirds of my rent, with funding from the Ryan White Act, is subsidized by the Washington, D.C. Housing Coalition,” Burgess said.
These programs are a lifeline for him. “Without the rental assistance and the Medicare and Medicaid, I wouldn’t be able to afford housing and health care,” Burgess said. “I couldn’t pay for my HIV medications and I couldn’t have had my hip replacement.”
Despite living with economic hardship, Burgess leads an active and full life. Committed to helping others, he has volunteered for groups serving everyone from homeless youth to elders. “I’m a goodwill ambassador for the DC Center for the LGBT Community and for AARP,” Burgess said. “I help seniors learn about their rights in housing and in nursing homes. Many seniors don’t know their rights.”
“I believe in God’s healing,” he went on, “I go to church. I have no prejudice against any other religion. I’m a spiritually free person.”
Burgess’s situation is far from unique. Many LGBT older adults (aging Baby Boomers over 50) live with economic insecurity.
“Media and marketing stereotypes view the LGBT community as an affluent niche group filled with couples with double incomes,” said Matthew J. Corso, chief communications officer and board member of the DC Center for the LGBT Community. “The poverty rate among LGBT older adults is much higher than people would think from the marketing view. Older adults can often feel isolated.”
The DC Center’s Coffee and Conversation is a safe space where older adults can connect with others in the community and discuss issues related to living with economic insecurity, Corso said.
People rarely look at economic insecurity and aging, said Robert Espinoza, senior director of public policy and communications for Services and Advocacy for GLBT Elders (SAGE), “People studying poverty don’t look often enough at poverty among LGBT and older people. On the other side, people studying LGBT issues aren’t looking often enough at aging and poverty.”
But studies that have been done show that poverty is high among elders and even higher among LGBT older adults, Espinoza said. Among the findings:
• One in six Americans aged 65 and older lives in poverty, according to a 2013 Congressional Research Service report.
• The poverty rate is as high or higher among lesbian, gay and bisexual people than for heterosexual people, and lesbian couples, 65 and older, are twice as likely to be poor as straight married couples, according to a 2009 Williams Institute Report.
• There are an estimated 1.5 million gay, lesbian and bisexual elders in the United States today. The number is expected to increase to nearly 3 million by 2030, according to “Improving the Lives of LGBT Older Adults” from SAGE, the Movement Advancement Program (MAP) and Center for American Progress.
• Because historically LGBT people have not been able to marry, many LGBT older adults face the economic insecurity and health issues that come with aging without the support from families that heterosexual older adults often receive. LGBT elders are twice as likely to be single and three to four times more likely to be without children as their straight peers, according to the MAP report.
• Transgender adults encounter profound discrimination, according to a SAGE and National Center for Transgender Equality 2012 report. They experience “striking disparities in … health care access … employment and more,” the report states, “with a growing older transgender population, there is an urgent need to understand the challenges that can threaten financial security, health and overall well-being.”
Several factors contribute to poverty among LGBT elders. “In the past, many faced employment discrimination because they were LGBT. LGBT people of color and lesbians faced even more severe discrimination,” Espinoza said. “Too many LGBT older adults have little, if any, retirement savings.”
• LGBT older adults face health disparities and 47 percent of LGBT people over 50 have a disability, said Imani Woody, Ph.D., chair of SAGE Metro D.C. “More than one in 10 LGBT people aged 50-plus have been denied health care or provided with inferior health care,” she said. “This can lead to economic insecurity, which can translate to poverty. If you don’t have access to health care, what do you have?”
Even older LGBT adults with moderate incomes, who wouldn’t think of themselves as facing poverty, can become impoverished if they become disabled or need long-term care, Espinoza said. “If you only have savings of, say, $60,000, it will go quickly.”
Lack of affordable housing and housing discrimination are key reasons why many LGBT older adults live in or near poverty. Same-sex older couples encounter discrimination when seeking housing in senior living facilities, according to a report, “Opening Doors: An Investigation of Barriers to Senior Housing for Same-Sex couples,” released last month by the Equal Rights Center, a civil rights organization in partnership with SAGE.
“We saw a number of adverse treatments with a high economic impact,” said Don Kahl, executive director, Equal Rights Center. “Sometimes they were charged for having an ‘extra person.’ At other times, they were told they’d have to take a more expensive two-bedroom apartment when they wanted a one-bedroom,” he said, “In other cases, they were treated in such a manner, that they wouldn’t accept the housing even if it was offered.”
It’s a misperception to think that as people age, they accumulate wealth and live out their days in comfort, said Peter Johnson, director of public relations for the Center on Halsted in Chicago. “It’s even more true for LGBT older adults. Before we began to experience marriage equality, LGBT seniors might have shared finances unevenly with their partners,” he said. “Without marriage, if one partner dies or the relationship ends, a huge financial burden is placed on the remaining partner.”
The Halsted Center is working with the Heartland Alliance to provide LGBT older adults with affordable housing in the LakeView neighborhood of Chicago. “While not exclusively LGBT it will be LGBT focused and friendly,” Johnson said. “It will be 70 units of subsidized housing with the rent being no more than 30 percent of residents’ income.”
LGBT elders live in or near poverty nationwide — from rural to metropolitan areas, Johnson said. “We are fortunate to have Heartland [Alliance] dealing with us on these issues.”
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