Housing and Services: A Critical Combination - Provisions in LGBT-specific Housing

October 2011 | Seth Kilbourn, Executive Director, Openhouse

Putting in place the housing, services and community programs necessary to age with dignity and grace is a vital need for today’s LGBT older adults and the wave of Baby Boomers to follow.  Openhouse has been working in San Francisco for nearly 13 years to build these pillars of healthy aging.  Our core belief—reinforced every day by the LGBT older adults we serve—is that housing, support services and a true sense of community must exist and work together in a way that serves the whole person, whose needs are never neatly divided into categories.  

In April 2008 Openhouse received permission from the City of San Francisco to build a new senior housing facility expressly welcoming to LGBT older adults at 55 Laguna Street, the site of the former University of California Extension campus in San Francisco.  Openhouse plans to build 109 apartments, which will all be rented to people 55 and over who are low-income.  Earlier this year, after three years of delay following the economic crisis, Openhouse secured almost $600,000 in financing from the City of San Francisco to begin designing and engineering our building. We are finally on our way.

For us, building housing is about building community, which is critically important for today’s LGBT elders.  One LGBT older adult, for example, wrote to the San Francisco Planning Commission that he was forced to leave San Francisco at age 62 because he could not find any affordable housing after being displaced from his rent-controlled apartment.  Now living in a suburb, he has lost his network of support and must travel to San Francisco for his medical treatment for HIV.  “Had a program like the 55 Laguna project existed four years ago, I might not now be in this depressing, untenable situation,” he wrote.  A lesbian elder, now living in subsidized housing north of San Francisco, wrote that she desperately misses her community of friends, contacts and medical support.  “Since I don’t know how much longer I will be able to financially or physically be able to drive to San Francisco, I need the exact kind of housing that Openhouse will sponsor at 55 Laguna,” she said. 

For those LGBT older adults who stay in San Francisco, many are forced to move into single room occupancy hotels.  For LGBT older adults who can afford to stay in San Francisco, many are understandably fearful about moving into housing communities that may not fully welcome them.  LGBT elders of all income levels thus reach out to Openhouse every day in search of safe and secure housing.  A system in which LGBT older adults retreat to the closet, return to the shadows and are no longer fully integrated into the larger social fabric of San Francisco is intolerable.  That is why LGBT-welcoming housing for older adults is so important.

But housing alone is not enough.  Support services are essential.  Openhouse currently provides over 1000 hours of structured activities and 800 hours of social services each year to hundreds of LGBT older adults.  The program is designed to help our elders secure stable housing, maintain their independence, reduce their isolation and improve their health, well-being and economic security. Last year, Openhouse was able to place 80 percent of our clients who sought housing assistance either in housing or on a wait list for a future opening.  But 60 percent of them also needed other services like counseling, socialization activities, in-home support, and case-management. 

Combining housing with services is thus critical for older adults to remain independent and healthy.  The Openhouse development at 55 Laguna St. will therefore include new Openhouse offices and an on-site senior community center to provide a wide range of activities and support, whether provided directly by Openhouse or coordinated through partner agencies.  The 55 Laguna St. development will provide a hub for residents and LGBT elders across the city to get the support—and community—they need.

The first Openhouse housing development will benefit the most vulnerable in our community: low-income older adults in need of subsidized housing.  But LGBT elders of all income levels are at risk for social isolation, premature or unnecessary institutionalization, or losing their ability to live in independently. As the housing market and lending environments improve, Openhouse continues to pursue strategies, as part of our long term plans, to build other Openhouse senior communities. 

For decades, thousands of LGBT people have come to San Francisco to find personal freedom and acceptance. Today more than 25,000 LGBT people over 55 live here. As older adults with increasing needs, the pioneers of this migration were (and continue to be) forced “back into the closet” in order to receive quality care or move into residential facilities. They are being forced to relocate, leave dear friends behind, and, all too often, live alone and isolated.  Largely without children and many without partners, LGBT older adults depend on Openhouse and will need 55 Laguna—and future Openhouse communities—as the hub of a strong community network to age with dignity and grace in the place they call home. 

Seth Kilbourn is the Executive Director of Openhouse. Founded in 1998, Openhouse builds housing, provides direct services and develops community programs so that every LGBT senior will: live in safe and stable housing that is affordable to them; be welcomed and appropriately served by all providers along the continuum of care; and be engaged with and supported by their communities of choice.