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June 20, 2011

The Center on Halsted’s homesharing program

Time Out Chicago
By David Tamarkin
“At the end of the day, they’re just there for each other.”

Britta Larson is talking about the successful roommate matches she’s made lately. As manager of the Center on Halsted’s Homesharing Program, which launched last year as the first program of its kind in the country directed toward LGBT older adults, Larson’s a bit of a roommate fairy—a roommate fairy for fairies.

“LGBT older adults are much more likely to be aging alone,” Larson says. And “they generally do not want to move into a senior-living community because they may have to go back into the closet. So if they can stay in their own home, that is key.” To help them stay in their homes as long as possible, the Homesharing Program matches older adults (termed “providers”) with able-bodied “renters” who, in exchange for reduced rent on a spare bedroom (roughly $500 per month), may provide assistance in everyday tasks such as gardening, meal preparation and housekeeping. Just as important, the renters provide companionship and friendship to older adults and reduce the risks of isolation. In just about every way, “we’ve designed the program to be a benefit to LGBT older adults,” Larson says. But as the first three matches in the still-burgeoning program demonstrate, the advantages extend both ways.

Dick and Barry

Provider Dick Bennett, 61, was looking for a roommate who “was neat and courteous…that I felt that I could trust…that I felt that I could get along with.” Renter Barry Lasswell, 43, was just looking for a place where he could finally unpack his bag. Two years ago, Lasswell quit his job, rented out his condo and took a 16-month trip around the world. When he finally returned to Chicago, he “wasn’t really ready to settle down yet. All my stuff was in storage, my condo was rented out. I just kind of wanted to bide my time for a while and maybe leave and travel again.” For that purpose, the Homesharing Program, in which renters operate on a month-to-month basis, was perfect.

“When I moved in, it was the first time in over two years that I had actually unpacked my backpack all the way,” Lasswell says. “I had my own closet, my own space—it felt great.”

Bennett had looked for a roommate to share his single-family home in Ravenswood Manor for a few years with no luck. The rent money is a help to him as he’s searching for a job. Bennett also had a friend living with him for several years starting in the ’90s, and he was looking to repeat that experience—to have a housemate who was “more of a friend than strictly a roommate.”

He seems to have found that in Lasswell. “About 4:30 in the afternoon [I moved in, Dick] comes and sticks his head in my bedroom, and he says, ‘I think it’s time for me to have a cocktail, would you like to join me?’ And I thought, Oh, I like this guy. We’re going to get along okay.” The situation is working out so well, in fact, that it has interrupted Lasswell’s travel plans. “I was thinking at the end of the year, nine months or so, to leave and travel again. But when I settled down I thought, Gosh, I may not be able to leave.”

Luis and Marti

Luis [who declined to give his last name], 39, and Marti Smith, 66, have the distinction of being the Homesharing Program’s first successful match (Larson hopes to make 20 matches every year; five households currently participate). As such, they are also the pair who have been living together the longest (they were paired in February), and in that time an interesting thing has happened: They’ve traded dogs. Smith, the provider, has an energetic three-year-old dog named Roxie; Luis, the renter, came to the apartment with a 14-year-old dog named Rodi. “He’s able to give my dog the more physical exercise that a three-year-old dog really needs, that I haven’t been able to do,” Smith explains. In return, Smith has kept the older, more laid-back dog company.

That’s not the only way this duo has affected each other’s lives. Luis, a trained cook, is helping Smith eat better; meanwhile, Luis, who is studying at Wright College, is appreciating the break in rent compared to his previous apartment in Logan Square.

From the outside they may make a strange pair—a thirtysomething gay man living with a sixtysomething lesbian. But Smith insists age hasn’t hampered their relationship. “I don’t think that either of us would have even thought about being in the program if we thought we were uncomfortable generationally.”

Politics, however—that would be a deal breaker, and in fact was a deal breaker with a gay man to whom Smith previously rented the room. Baseball could have threatened to come between them, as well, as Smith is a lifelong White Sox fan. But, luckily, Luis grew up on the South Side rooting for the Sox, too.


Last year, renter William Johnson, 33, was living in Cincinnati, looking through guidebooks of the city that had called out to him for years. “I remember seeing [a photo of] a couple sitting on this bench in Grant Park, and I said, I’m going to sit on that bench,” he recalls. Inspired, Johnson soon gave away almost everything he had and arrived in Chicago with nothing more than $300 and a suitcase full of clothes. While he looked for a job, he lived first in a homeless shelter, then in a room at the Y. So when he was paired with a provider who had a nice condo in Uptown, he was more than a little enamored with the space.

“When I went to his home, it was so comfortable,” Johnson says. “I had longed to be somewhere comfortable. I had gone from a green mat [at a homeless shelter], to a room at the Y, to a hotel room. Granted, each little step was a little better. But it wasn’t comfortable. To be in his home, and then to have a nice room, and my bathroom—my bathroom, instead of me sharing all the time—you know, it felt good.”

Having been hassled at the homeless shelter for being gay (“I was made fun of. I wouldn’t say bashed,” he says), Johnson also appreciated that he could be himself in his home. And Johnson suspects that his provider, a male in his seventies who declined to be interviewed, benefits from living with another gay man as well.

“I think he’s learned something from me,” he says, about “giving it all up just to start anew, and how brave it was, and how hard it was.

“There were times where I would stay out so late…because I was so tired of being [at the shelter]. But now on my off day, I’m like, Why don’t I stay in? Why not? Because I’ve longed to have this for so long, why not enjoy it?”

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