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May 12, 2017

LGBTQ Seniors Say Change In Federal Survey Means They Won't Be Counted

By Ariel Cheung
BOYSTOWN — A series of LGBTQ-related questions are at risk of being removed from a federal survey of senior citizens, which Boystown activists say could have devastating consequences. So they're fighting back, and asking the community to join them.

Friday is the last day to submit formal comments regarding the National Survey of Older Americans Act Participants, which is used to determine how the federal government allocates $1.9 billion to services like Meals on Wheels, a national Alzheimer's disease call center and elder abuse prevention.

A draft of this year's survey removes a question asking whether the participant is lesbian, gay, bisexual or heterosexual. Another survey, also issued through the Department of Health and Human Services, omitted a similar question on sexual orientation.

"If you aren't counted, you're invisible," said Kim Hunt, executive director of Pride Action Tank. "And it's hard to request resources be directed toward services specifically for LGBTQ older adults if we cannot count LGBTQ older adults."

Pride Action Tank, currently in its second year as an offshoot of AIDS Foundation of Chicago, joined in protest of the survey change with SAGE, a national organization that advocates for older people who are LGBTQ.

SAGE, which stands for Services and Advocacy for GLBT Elders, also launched a letter campaign to Donald Trump's administration.

Older adults who are gay face a specific set of challenges when it comes to arranging care or housing for themselves, Hunt said.

"They were coming out when being gay or lesbian was deemed a mental health issue," Hunt said. "So they grew up with a lot of stigma, and some of them were essentially kicked out of their families."

And in long-term care facilities, fellow residents "may not have progressed in their attitudes and beliefs the way society as a whole has progressed," she added.

Along with the LGBTQ population as a whole, many of its seniors faced a challenging job market, where establishing careers with benefits was much more difficult. Health issues like aging with HIV further complicate matters, Hunt said.

"There's a lot going on with some folks who have aged while being LGBTQ," she said. "And the social safety net is just not culturally competent for them."

Chicago has about 40,000 LGBT people over 55 years old, and one-fifth live in poverty, according to a Heartland Alliance survey.

Center on Halsted spent around $512,000 last year on programs for nearly 500 LGBTQ seniors each week, like cultural outings, along with the Town Hall Apartments, which house 83 senior residents.

"I can rest easy instead of worrying about how I'm going to come up with the next rent, how I'm going to buy food for myself," said resident Pat Cummings when the apartments opened in 2013.

The money represents 7 percent of Center on Halsted's annual $6.9 million budget. About $1.9 million of that comes from the government.

Howard Brown Health, another Boystown mainstay, also provides specialized senior care, with free lunches, memory evaluation, HIV testing and treatment and chronic disease management.

The Department of Health and Human Services, responding to directives from then-President Barack Obama, began to examine how to advance equal rights to well-being for LGBTQ individuals in 2014.

It prioritized prohibiting discrimination, funding research on LGBTQ health inequities and improving health data for the population. Five HHS surveys, including the Older Americans Act survey, added questions about sexual orientation and gender identity.

It took a "long advocacy battle to make that happen," Hunt said. "Efforts across the board to add questions in many national surveys so LGBTQ people can be counted, and we can get an assessment of if they are being served by the programs that are funded by our tax dollars."

But now that progress is at risk of being turned back, Hunt said.

"If you can't demonstrate how many people you're talking about, the tendency is for resources to go to populations that are talked about," she said. "When you're invisible, doing advocacy work is much tougher."

Read the original article online here.

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