They're a minority that are often on the sidelines of society. And when it comes to affordable housing, their struggles can be overwhelming. They are low-income lesbian, gay and transgendered senior citizens. There's an estimated 40,000 of them in the Chicago area, and now, for the first time in the Midwest, a housing development geared toward the LGBT community is going up in Chicago.
Up until last year, 68-year-old Marc Lawrence was taking care of a younger sister who suffered from dementia. They shared a house on the city's south side. But, after his sister died, Marc was on his own and had to find housing he could afford on a very meager fixed income. What he encountered in his search for a new home were obstacles that went beyond his finances and age.
“More than once, they said, ‘we’re not taking applications now,’ and they don’t want to deal with you. They don’t even want to put your name on a list, they don’t even want to tell you there’s a list,” he said, citing possible discrimination because he’s gay.
“It could be, but I didn’t advertise it, so I don’t know,” he said.
Marc Lawrence found his new home at the Hollywood House apartments in Chicago's Edgewater neighborhood. It meets his financial needs, and he says he feels welcome and relatively comfortable there.
But, for many other low-income senior citizens who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or queer, their story does not end as happily as Marc’s.
One such senior is 67-year-old Gloria Allen, a transgender woman.
“When I first moved in the first senior building, it was nice. The staff was beautiful over there. The Flannery Apartments was the name of it. I got along with everybody, you know, and the staff was wonderful. But it was the people that were in the facility there that they weren’t gay-friendly,” said Allen. “They didn’t want to be bothered with me. They weren’t ready for me or my kind to be in that building, and a lot of senior citizen buildings, they’re like that. Gay-friendly, they’re not.”
Stories of harassment, fear and even discrimination in housing can be heard from many of the older LGBTQ seniors that gather a couple of days a week at Chicago's Center on Halsted. And, it's something the center, which serves the gay and lesbian community, is striving to address.
“LGBTQ older adults often feel isolated and lonely in mainstream senior housing, affordable senior housing projects, because of their identity as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or queer,” said Britta Larson, Director of Senior Services at Center on Halsted. “They may choose to remain closeted about their identity for fear of their safety or for fear of discrimination, and when they closet themselves, they isolate themselves. They are now living a lie.”
While discrimination based on sexual identity is illegal in Chicago, some LGBTQ seniors say they believe it still happens -- but often it's not blatant.
“When it comes to discrimination, a bigot can find good ways of hiding their bigotry. It’s not always, ‘I’m not giving you a lease because you are GLBT or Q, it may be for other reasons that they give,” said Roger Beyers, a gay senior citizen.
This past week, construction got underway on what will be a low-income housing development that will welcome LGBTQ seniors. It's going up alongside the old Town Hall police station at the corner of Halsted and Addison in the area that’s come to be known as Boystown, and it’s just steps from the Center on Halsted. It will be the first of its kind in the Midwest, and only the second in the nation outside of Los Angeles.
“We hope that we have a nice mix of LGBTQ seniors, as well as allies of the community, and that it’s a friendly, welcoming space regardless of your sexual orientation or regardless of your gender identity; that it’s a welcoming space for all seniors,” Larson said.
The new $26 million building will have 80 apartments; 40 are designated for Chicago Housing Authority residents, and the other 40 will be awarded by way of a lottery to low-income applicants. The project is being funded by a combination of public and private funds, and the City of Chicago donated the land for the development.
More than anything, say LGBTQ advocates, it will be a milestone in Chicago’s gay and lesbian history.
“This population has been very marginalized and has been invisible in many ways for a very long time, and so for the first time we’re going to have housing dedicated and geared for the LGBTQ community, which is very significant,” Larson said. “It’s going to send a significant message that these seniors are important; that they deserve time, attention, resources, programs. And I hope that this is the first of many.”
The design for the new development incorporates the hundred-year old former police station as an anchor for the building. The ground floor that once housed prisoners will be the new home for senior programs for the Center on Halsted. And the second floor will be community space for the residents of the building.
“If I can get into that building, I think I would feel, finally I’m home, I’m safe, and I’m loved,” said Allen.
For LGBTQ seniors who've faced struggles and challenges, the new development could be the homecoming they've always dreamed of.
The new development is being spearheaded by Heartland Housing, a nonprofit organization that specializes in affordable housing; and it's scheduled to be completed by early 2014.