By Elliot Owen
Bay Area Reporter
At a time when the size of the LGBT senior population is increasing with the rate of life expectancy, the question of how to best care for elders becomes an ever more crucial one to answer. Openhouse, the agency that works with LGBT seniors, has several projects in the works, including the long-stalled housing complex at 55 Laguna Street.
Affordable and safe housing is one of the critical needs expressed by LGBT seniors. According to real estate website Trulia Inc., rent in San Francisco increased 15 percent from June 2011 to June 2012. In a report released last year, the National Low Income Housing Coalition named San Francisco as the most expensive place to rent in the country. It costs just under $2,000 per month on average to rent a two-bedroom apartment – an impossible rate for many seniors living on fixed incomes. And even if it’s currently feasible, rent hikes loom ahead.
“Housing has been identified as one of the most urgent needs for LGBT older adults,” Openhouse Executive Director Seth Kilbourn said. “Seniors can call us, set up an appointment with our housing specialist who takes into account their income, needs, and current living situation to identify their options. Many seniors feel forced to leave the community they’ve built because housing is so expensive so we offer assistance in helping them stay.”
For the 55 Laguna Street project, Openhouse is partnering with Wood Partners and Mercy Housing California to build, own and operate 110 units that will be explicitly LGBT-senior welcoming. It is part of a larger in-fill development that will see an additional 330 new multi-family rental units built at what was the UC Berkeley Extension campus.
The San Francisco Planning Commission last August approved the project and construction for the first phase is slated to start mid-2014. Openhouse estimates that each of the two phases will take about one year and hopes to have people moved into phase one by mid-2015 and phase two by mid-2016.
Financing for the project, Kilbourn said, is expected to come in the form of government and private corporation funds covering around $53 million.
While eligibility for 55 Laguna won’t include identifying as LGBT (but rather being 55 years or older and meeting income criteria), Openhouse is promising that the LGBT community will be well-represented there.
“Our vision has always been that 55 Laguna will be a hub for LGBT seniors,” Kilbourn said. “We’ll be moving our offices there and building an activities center for the activities we already have.”
Additionally, Openhouse offers a broad range of activities, services, and programs that foster healthy and sustainable livelihoods for LGBT seniors. Over 25,000 LGBT people over 55 live in San Francisco and more than 600 per year access the resources that Openhouse provides. This year, the organization has an operating budget of $850,000 to maintain those services and largely depends on the help of volunteers.
Daphne Romeo and Linda Maccione, who have been together for 13 years, have been attending Openhouse activities for the past year. Both East Coast natives, they’ve found San Francisco’s LGBT community generally welcoming with Openhouse contributing largely to their positive experience. They attend Games Day every Saturday at the LGBT Community Center on Market Street, the Women’s Support Group at Congregation Sha’ar Zahav every Tuesday, and other activities.
“Openhouse is important because it’s an outlet for people to feel comfortable,” Romeo, 46, said. “It’s good to be with people you identify with – a good haven. It’s more community than I’ve ever had anywhere.”
Other popular activities include the Men’s Group, a grief support group, various health and wellness workshops and events, and the twice-monthly “rainbow” lunch.
“With Openhouse we’re protected,” added Maccione, 62. “If you’re alone or isolated, it’s a place to get together and feel a sense of community and camaraderie.”
Focus groups forming
Recognizing that many LGBT seniors live at the intersections of race, ethnicity, class, culture, HIV status, sexual orientation, gender, gender identity and expression, spirituality, and ability is paramount to Openhouse’s mission. The premise is not only apparent in the resources it already provides, but will also be woven into a new strategic plan the organization is looking to formulate based on information currently being collected through a series of focus groups to be held between January 21 and February 8.
“We really want to get a cross-section of the LGBT community to know what we’re doing well, what we could be doing better, and what other programs might be relevant to people based on the intersections of their identities,” Kilbourn said. “We want to meet the needs of the broadest range of people.”
Kilbourn said the agency is seeking people to participate in the focus groups.
The 90-minute confidential discussions will be led by a facilitator with refreshments provided. Each attendee will get a $20 gift card from either Trader Joe’s or Safeway for their participation. Bay Area LGBT adults age 55 and over are encouraged to participate, as are people who care for LGBT older adults and those who have or have not participated in an Openhouse program.
“We hope to have a report produced by this spring that will help us formulate four or five big strategic goals that we need to expand our services,” Kilbourn said. “This is a really important point in history for our organization.”