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Previous, Current, Future – San Francisco Bay Instances

By dr Marcy Adelman

Twenty-four years ago, I co-founded Openhouse with my late partner, Jeanette Gurevitch, to build senior housing with services for San Francisco’s LGBTQ community. It was a time much different than the one we now live in. LGBTQ older adults were invisible in all areas of mainstream senior services. LGBTQ seniors were not welcome in either market rate or affordable senior housing or at any point along the continuum of senior care in San Francisco. LGBTQ older adults would go back into the closet to access senior housing or services, or at great risk to their health, choose not to access needed services at all. Low-income seniors were being forced out of San Francisco by evictions and rising rents by an inflated housing market. The situation for LGBTQ seniors was more dire; they were being forced to leave their home and the community they built, where they felt safe to live an out life. With few safe options, they faced an uncertain future.

We invited senior community members, Jan Falkner, Matile Rothschild, Arthur Hurwith, and Warren Van Eck, to join us. They accepted our invitation and together we comprised the founding board.

We spoke about aging at small gatherings in people’s homes and to numerous LGBTQ organizations. How did people want to age and with whom? We asked people not just what they thought was possible but what they would like to see happen as they got older. I knew I wanted to live in an intergenerational community that embraced aging and centered the voices, experiences, and ongoing contributions of LGBTQ older adults. Whether I lived in senior housing or not, that was the kind of greater community I wanted to be a part of. We were a grassroots effort imbued with the spirit of community building. This spirit continues at Openhouse.

We searched for a housing developer partner. We met with both for profit and non-profit developers. Some questioned the financial feasibility of our project; others said they were too busy building housing for their own community. After all, we had little to offer to enter into a partnership. We had no money and no land to build on. We explored the possibility of a partnership with two different developers but they didn’t work out. We also made several serious attempts at securing a site to build on. All of which were in or near Hayes Valley.

Hayes Valley seemed like the most likely place for our village. It was and is a gay friendly neighborhood close to the Castro. It also was a neighborhood with large parcels of open land. The Central Freeway had come down during the earthquake and the neighborhood was determined not to rebuild it. They wanted to replace the freeway with a green, walkable neighborhood with fewer cars, more housing, and more sunlight. The Hayes Valley Neighborhood Association (HVNA) was home to some remarkable advocates. Jeanette and I sat in on some of their meetings and then presented our vision of what we wanted to build in the neighborhood. We found we had much in common. We became members and supporters. We didn’t know it then, but our long relationship with HVNA would play an important role in securing a developer and eventually the site on Laguna Street.

We also met with city and community leaders and city personnel. To address the concerns we encountered when meeting with city personnel, we decided to conduct a survey designed to collect demographic, psychosocial, and senior/retirement housing information from LGBT people of all ages. A total of 1301 LGBT adults returned the survey. There were too few bisexual and transgender elder respondents to include in the analysis of the study. However, people of color made up more than 25% of the sample. The survey was the largest and most racially inclusive sample of gay men and lesbians over the age of 50 that had been conducted up to that time.

Key takeaways from the Openhouse study were that (1) the incomes of LG older adults mirrored that of their heterosexual peers and (2) that LG older adults differed from their heterosexual peers as they are more likely to be single, live alone, not have children, and to have higher disability rates. These results shattered the myth of gay wealth and of the gay community not being in need of, or deserving of, affordable housing; and second, that LG older adults, having fewer traditional supports and higher disability rates, would greatly benefit from support.

Our community needed so much; we decided on a vision that would care for as many people as possible. Our vision was to build a mixed income, multicultural senior housing and service village that would provide LGBTQ welcoming housing and services for openhouse residents, the neighborhood in which the village was located, and LGBTQ seniors throughout the city. We further understood from the start that we could not, on our own, build enough housing or provide enough senior services to meet the needs of our aging community. So, since 2004, Openhouse has been providing LGBTQ older adult cultural competency training for Bay Area senior serving providers and organizations.

In 2008, Openhouse finally secured a site to build on. In April of 2008, the Board of Supervisors voted unanimously to give final approval to a Hayes Valley residential complex with affordable housing welcoming to LGBTQ older adults. Construction was expected to begin in the fall of that year and completion was scheduled for 2011. But the recession delayed construction and the project wasn’t completed until just before COVID.

Despite the delays that were outside of Openhouse’s control and last-minute changes from a mixed income project to an affordable housing project, Openhouse, in partnership with the city and Mercy Housing, successfully established its flagship site of senior housing and services on Laguna Street in Hayes Valley.

The Openhouse village consists of two buildings: 55 Laguna, a repurposed and beautifully renovated historic building that includes affordable housing apartments and Openhouse’s Service Center; and a newly constructed five-story building that includes the 75 Laguna Openhouse Community Activity Center and the affordable housing at 95 Laguna. There are a total of 121 affordable senior apartments in the village. The buildings share a large courtyard and outdoor space nestled in the back of the buildings.

Openhouse’s LGBTQ senior cultural competency training for senior service providers and senior serving organizations also has been successful and has had an impact on making local services and both market rate and affordable senior housing more LGBTQ inclusive. Much has been accomplished. But there is still much more work to be done.

Openhouse is now a seasoned and well-respected nonprofit that has developed one of the largest affordable LGBTQ senior housing complex in the country. Openhouse currently serves over 3000 LGBT older adults with a range of services such as art classes, social groups, language classes (Spanish and Yiddish), home-delivery program, friendly home visitor program, cooking classes, walking group, lunch program, long term Survivors HIV/AIDS Support Group, Housing Workshop, Transgender and Gender Non-Conforming Aging Services Program, Rainbow lunch, and Community Day Services, to name just a few.

There is much to celebrate and be proud of. It has taken decades and countless people who helped along the way—the senior LGBTQ community first and foremost, community and civic leaders, the amazing Openhouse staff and board members, donors, foundations, and so many others.

Still, despite all the progress made, the LGBTQ senior community continues to be underserved in mainstream senior services. According to the 2018 San Francisco Department of Disability and Aging Services Needs Assessment, LGBTQ seniors are two and a half times less likely to utilize mainstream senior services and more likely to access services housed within LGBTQ identified agencies. Similar results were reported in the more recent 2022 needs assessment. Going forward, Openhouse can continue to play an important role in meeting the community’s unmet needs.

A 2022 study by the San Francisco LGBTQ Aging Research Partnership reported on the physical and emotional health of San Francisco’s LGBTQ older adults during COVID and which services they were able to receive and which they were unable to access. In many cases, most older LGBTQ adults were able to access the services they needed. Mental health counseling, however, was reported as the highest unmet need by almost 17% of the 500 respondents. Mental health issues, such as depression and PTSD, spiked, and feelings of loneliness and isolation increased. More than one in four people of color, HIV+ respondents, and people with disabilities reported being unable to access mental health service. Even with the new and innovative telehealth counseling program coming online at Curry Senior Center, the LGBTQ senior community will still need greater access to culturally appropriate, senior centered, affordable mental health services.

dr Kathleen Sullivan, Openhouse’s Executive Director, arrived during COVID. She is the first Openhouse ED experienced in LGBTQ senior housing and LGBTQ senior service. She has a Ph.D. in Urban Studies, with a focus on housing for LGBTQ mid-life and older adults. She was the Director of Senior Services at the Los Angeles LGBT Center. The LA LGBT Center provides services for more LGBTQ people and LGBTQ seniors than any other organization nationwide.

Kathleen is the perfect person to take Openhouse to the next level and grow Openhouse’s footprint of LGBTQ senior housing and services in San Francisco, and she is well positioned to assist and advise other Northern California communities in how they can best serve their aging LGBTQ communities using the open-house model of senior housing with services.

A new chapter is about to be written.

dr Marcy Adelman, a psychologist and LGBTQ+ longevity advocate and policy adviser, oversees the aging in Community column. She serves on the California Commission on Aging, the Board of the Alzheimer’s Association of Northern California, the California Master Plan on Aging Equity Advisory Committee, and the San Francisco Dignity Fund Oversight and Advisory Committee. She is the Co-Founder of Openhouse, the only San Francisco nonprofit exclusively focused on the health and well-being of LGBTQ+ older adults.

Aging in community
Published on September 8, 2022

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