Finding Community Even in a Pandemic

 Bill Meehan moved into Stonewall House, an affordable, L.G.B.T.Q.-friendly senior housing development in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, early this year, when it was not exactly an ideal time to get to know one’s neighbors.

Between social distancing, mask wearing and the fact that the building had just opened but all the communal spaces remained closed because of Covid-19, interactions between residents were extremely limited.

But Mr. Meehan, 77, a former priest, is not one to be deterred from making connections. Not even by a pandemic.

“There wasn’t a lot of stuff in place to meet people, but we’re humans. You run into people, the first day you say, ‘hello.’ The second day you say, ‘hello’ plus. If you say hello often enough, you get hello back,” said Mr. Meehan, who started chatting with neighbors in the corridors and outside the building as soon as he moved in. When the coronavirus arrived a few weeks later, he just added a mask.

“I’m a community-type person. I would never just stay in an apartment by myself,” he said.

The oldest of six children, Mr. Meehan grew up in East New York and spent 16 years as a priest, serving as a teacher in East Harlem for many of them. He left the priesthood in the mid-1980s — “I came to terms with some things, like my sexuality,” he said — but he carried with him the tradition of community engagement.

Over the years, he has been involved in numerous community groups, boards and political clubs, everything from his local AARP chapter to the Queens Pride parade. About 10 years ago, he started occasionally serving as a wedding officiant after he discovered that “once you’re an officiant, you’re an officiant for life.”

“When you retire, something interesting happens,” he said. “People realize you’re free and they call and email and you get hooked into things.”


Occupation: Retired. Mr. Meehan was a priest for 16 years and worked a number of different jobs after he left the priesthood, from human resources work in recruiting and staffing to serving as the dean of a school in Brownsville. His last job was as an assistant vice president at Washington Mutual, which acquired his previous employer, Dime Savings Bank of New York.
Volunteering: Outside of the tenants’ association in his new building, Mr. Meehan mostly volunteers with Jackson Heights organizations. But he would like to get involved with the Fort Greene Park Conversancy, the Brooklyn Pride Parade and Long Island University.
But it isn’t all work: Since the start of the pandemic, “I have seen more movies than I have in my entire life,” he said. “Netflix, Amazon Prime and Hulu have really kept me sane.”
Embracing change: “It was a transition to go from being a novitiate then into the priesthood, then from working in a little town in Puerto Rico to East Harlem,” Mr. Meehan said. “Every place I’ve been has been a challenge and a successful adaptation. I love change. And I’ve loved every place I’ve lived except one.”
Middletown, Conn.: “It was too suburban for me. I’m a city person,” he said. “I like Florida, I like the beach, but when I go to visit my siblings there, by the third day, I’m ready to come back to New York.”

Living in a community has also often extended to his housing situations. Some years ago, when a former student and his wife needed a place to stay, they moved into Mr. Meehan’s one-bedroom apartment in Rego Park, Queens; a few years later, all three moved into a larger Jackson Heights two-bedroom.

“It was a huge place, one of these oodles of space prewar places,” he said. “We had 13 windows.”

When the couple moved out, a Guatemalan busboy he was friends with became a roommate; over time other Guatemalan immigrants joined them in the apartment. When he left to move into Stonewall House, Mr. Meehan was sharing the apartment with five roommates.

“It was a really great experience. They were good people, we were a family,” he said. “But we only had one bathroom and old men don’t do well on lines.”

He had also been finding it difficult to make the $1,700-a-month rent. Though his roommates kicked in some, Mr. Meehan covered the remainder with social security and a small pension from Dime Savings Bank of New York, where he had worked as an assistant vice president until the bank went under during the financial crisis.

It was a relief, he said, to only be responsible for paying $566 a month for his studio apartment at Stonewall House. The affordable housing development, a partnership between BFC Partners, three city housing agencies and SAGE, a nonprofit for L.G.B.T.Q. elders, has 145 units for seniors earning less than 50 percent of area median income. It is the largest development of its kind in the country.

“I wasn’t sure how I’d adjust to this place,” Mr. Meehan said. “Going from living with five people to just you? But I’m very happy here.”

Although, he added, he’s hardly been alone. “I live on the phone a great deal,” Mr. Meehan said. “I have a tremendous group of people who sustain me, watch out for me. I spend a lot of time Zoom conferencing, I love Facebook, live on Facebook. I’m very seldom totally by myself.”

He has also seen his former roommates from Jackson Heights, who came by to help him hang pictures and put together the large desk he ordered from Wayfair. The desk is where he spends the majority of his time in the apartment.

Opposite the desk is a Murphy bed — a gift from a friend. “It gives me almost a second room,” he said. “At night, I move the chair over to the side and in three minutes I have a sleeping area.”

And, of course, there are his new neighbors. While social activities have been curtailed, there’s still Zoom and the sidewalk in front of the building. With two other residents, Mr. Meehan started a tenants’ association. So far the association has secured a bus stop on the building’s corner and convinced management to open up the three terraces in the building, which were closed all spring and summer because of the coronavirus.

“As someone living alone, I have my morning coffee up there, read the paper,” Mr. Meehan said. “Covid is a downside for us — we haven’t been able to open up the community room, but we’re gelling nicely.”

“It’s going to be nice when you see people’s faces finally,” he added. “Like a masquerade party.”

This article was originally published in the New York Times on December 7, 2020.