The last thing elderly members of the LGBT community want to do is climb back into the closet many spent their lives trying to escape. But for some, that’s exactly what they’ve had to do.
As they’ve aged, they’ve been forced to move into retirement homes, many faith-based, where their sexuality was not welcome. Some were afraid to put out photos of partners and loved ones who died of AIDS; others discouraged friends from visiting.
These pioneers — including some who were at the forefront of the years-long fight for gay rights in Houston — who had survived the AIDS epidemic and helped others come out when gay sex was still a crime were now living in fear of being outed and ejected from their homes.
When staff at the Montrose Center began hearing their tales they determined to do something to help. The mission to establish LGBT-affirming senior housing came closer to fruition recently, when ground was broken on the 112-unit Law Harrington Senior Living Center in Third Ward.
The $26 million senior housing center will have many standard features usually found in homes for the aging: a social-services department, geriatric primary care clinic, communal dining area and game rooms. There will be a fitness center and dog park, vegetable garden and outdoor recreational spaces.
Most importantly, the space will serve as Texas’s first LGBT-affirming housing for low-income seniors, and the second-largest in the country.
It’s long overdue.
Houston has a vibrant and active LGBT community and is home to the fourth largest gay pride parade in the country. It also has a significant number of LGBT seniors who often face social isolation, financial difficulties and other issues unique to their age group and too often overlooked by social service providers and policymakers.
LGBT adults over 50 are more likely to suffer chronic health conditions, such as low back or neck pain, weakened immune systems, and disabilities, according to a 2018 study by a University of Washington researcher. Lesbian and bisexual older women are at higher risk than their heterosexual counterparts of strokes, heart attacks, asthma, or arthritis. Some LGBT baby boomers are HIV survivors, whose health may have been impacted by the long-term use of drugs to treat the disease.
Many also face discrimination in housing and from peers and are twice as likely to age in isolation, said Kennedy Loftin, the Montrose Center’s chief development officer.
They are also four times less likely to have the financial means to age in comfort, a legacy of the AIDS era when many lost their entire social circle, were rejected by family and faced workplace discrimination.
“These seniors are our community’s heroes. They helped create all the rights we take for granted,” said Loftin. “They did everything right, yet they are often the most vulnerable in our community.”
That is the case not only in Houston, but on a national level. According to the national LGBTQ advocacy nonprofit SAGE, nearly half of older same-sex couples have experienced housing discrimination, and one-third of LGBTQ adults over 50 struggle with poverty. In Houston, that means gay-friendly neighborhoods such as Montrose are too pricey for many LGBT residents.
Future residents of the Montrose Center’s housing project, which will eventually house 150 eligible seniors 62 and older, will pay no more than 30 percent of their income for rent. The complex will also be home to SPRY, a 14-year-old Montrose Center program that offers around 250 LGBT seniors year-round book clubs, support groups, social outings and other activities.
The need for such programs will continue to grow as the population ages. There are currently an estimated 2.4 million LGBT adults over 50 in the United States, with the number expected to double by 2030.
The Montrose Center senior housing project, funded through a mix of federal subsidies, Tax Increment Reinvestment Zones (TIRZ) funding from the City of Houston’s Department of Housing & Community Development, and a land donation valued at more than $5 million, is one part of the solution.
Still, the effort to serve older Houstonians, across communities, can’t stop there.
In one way or the other, we will all face the same challenges, whether we are struggling to care for an elderly parent or considering our own options as we age.
As former Mayor Annise Parker noted at the Law Harrington senior center groundbreaking: “It is a step forward for our community but we need so much more.”