CHICAGO Gay rights took a big stride forward in this week's elections, with voters in four states affirming the right of same-sex couples to marry. But here's an issue in the LGBT community that continues to fly under the radar: what happens to LGBT Americans when they get old?
"Our community has been focused for years on other issues, like AIDS/HIV, marriage equality and bullying," says Mark Segal, a well-known advocate in the LGBT community and founder of the Philadelphia Gay News. "But we've never developed a system for LGBT seniors, especially those who are low income and are very endangered."
Housing is one of the most important emerging retirement issues for older LGBT Americans. Along with the nation's broader age wave, the number of LGBT adults over age 65 will total four million by 2030, according to Services and Advocacy for LGBT Elders (SAGE), an advocacy organization for LGBT older adults. Research shows LGBT seniors are more likely to be single, without children or not have biological family members on whom they can rely for support as they age.
That means they will need the support of senior living facilities ranging from independent living quarters to assisted living and nursing home care. But mainstream retirement housing for this community has been problematic.
A survey of LGBT seniors who have lived in long-term care facilities, and their family members, released last year by a coalition of LGBT advocacy groups, revealed that most LGBT seniors aren't comfortable discussing their sexual orientation with staff members of these facilities. It also found disturbing levels of discrimination by staff members, including abuse and neglect or isolation from other residents.
"Many LGBT older people feel that they must hide their sexual identities if they move to a retirement home, and LGBT elders often face discrimination from aging care providers in places where they are most vulnerable, such as assisted living facilities or nursing homes." says Michael Adams, executive director of SAGE.
"Welcoming and affordable housing is incredibly important to LGBT older people, because a home should be not only a physical space where they live, but also a place of personal affirmation, community and safety," he adds.
The situation is gradually improving. The federal government is focusing on policies aimed at encouraging inclusion by senior housing communities. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services is preparing video training aimed at increasing cultural sensitivity of staff at long-term care facilities, and the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) earlier this year unveiled new rules explicitly prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity in housing that receives HUD funding.
Meanwhile, some LGBT advocates are taking steps to develop senior housing specifically targeting the needs of the gay community.
One of those is Segal, a well-known advocate in the LGBT community whose involvement in the gay rights movement dates back to the 1969 Stonewall riots in New York City. He's also the founder and publisher of the Philadelphia Gay News, and regarded as one of the founders of the nation's gay press.
Segal this week will break ground in Philadelphia on a housing complex for low-income LGBT seniors. While other complexes exists - such as Triangle Square in Los Angeles - this is the first of its kind in the heart of an urban gay neighborhood.
The six-story building will rise in the heart of the city's LGBT community - deemed by locals, the "Gayborhood," which lies within the city's hip Washington Square West neighborhood. It will offer 56 one-bedroom units, with rents ranging from $165 to $785 per month, depending on tenant income. Financing comes from a combination of low income housing grants and tax credits, including the federal Low Income Housing Tax Credit Program (LIHTC), which provides incentives for private lenders to invest in affordable rental housing.
"This will be first time our community has had an opportunity to find housing of this kind in their own community," says Segal.
Among the prospective residents is Donald Carter, 62, who suffers from arthritis and neuropathy. He now lives alone in a third-floor walk-up apartment in Philadelphia. "On bad days, it's all I can do to pull myself up those steps," he says.
Carter, a former teacher and long-time activist in the local LGBT community, has been living on Social Security disability for the past 20 years, and currently receives $740 monthly. "It's enough for me to pay the bill and have a handful of dollars left over to splurge on dinner or a movie every now and then. I've just looked at my life as a reflection of being black and gay in America," he says with a laugh. Carter's luck may change soon, at least where housing is concerned.
Similar projects also are on track to break ground in San Francisco and Chicago. If all the affordable LGBT housing on the drawing boards or under development is completed, it will total 385 units, according to SAGE.
Also, retirement communities for wealthy LGBT seniors are under development - although some have faltered during the recession and housing crash. One project that is on track is Fountaingrove Lodge in Santa Rosa, California, in the wine country north of San Francisco, which is expected to open with 70 units next year. It will provide a combination of independent living and continuing care, including care for Alzheimer's sufferers.
Carter's needs are more modest. "This project is a timely godsend for me - number one, because there will be an elevator."
(The writer is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.)
(Follow us @ReutersMoney or here. Editing by Beth Pinsker Gladstone and Bernard Orr)