At Spirit on Lake, Gay Seniors Find Safe Haven
Lucretia Kirby was on her own for the first time in years after her partner's death. She felt stranded in a church-affiliated assisted living facility, where she said bigotry and even physical threats were ignored by building managers.
Russ Lovaasen was infected with HIV in 1982. Decades of medication and its side effects left him prematurely aged at 62, and unable to afford a place of his own.
Harvey Hertz, a gay man who came out decades ago, was terrified that moving into a retirement community would force him back into the closet. He'd seen it happen.
Since September, Hertz, Kirby and Lovaasen have joined others as the charter residents at Spirit on Lake, a 46-unit affordable housing complex marketed to older members of the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community. Only the second building of its kind in the United States - more are under construction or planned in Chicago, Philadelphia and San Francisco - Spirit on Lake's backers say it fills a growing need for a generation of openly gay people now reaching their twilight years.
"GLBT seniors have significant issues. They're growing old in many cases in isolation, in fear," said Barbara Satin, a 79-year-old transgender activist described by building residents as "the matriarch of Spirit on Lake."
Services and Advocacy for GLBT Elders, a New York-based group, estimates there are 1.5 million openly gay elderly people in the U.S. - a number expected to double by 2030. Many of them, Satin said, "don't experience the freedom that GLBT people now experience." Less likely to have children or grandchildren, they came of age in a time when gay people were often rejected by their families.
Satin spent her first 60 years living as a man. She came out as transgender not long after retiring from a corporate career, and later became involved with a small United Church of Christ congregation started by like-minded activists. Their "queer church," as she called it, worshipped in an old warehouse on Lake Street, a major thoroughfare in south Minneapolis. They named the church Spirit of the Lakes.
About a decade ago, as that stretch of Lake Street attracted urban redevelopers, church members decided to merge with a larger UCC congregation. At the same time, Satin and a few others had formed a group to bring attention to issues facing gay seniors.
"We decided, let’s do something with our property that would aid GLBT seniors, and that’s where this housing project came from," said Satin, whose portrait now hangs in the building’s lobby.
With help from PRG, an affordable housing advocacy group, Satin and collaborators cobbled together funds from nonprofits and local governments. They found a main-floor occupant in Quatrefoil, a small GLBT-oriented library that for years had been housed in a St. Paul basement.
To qualify as an affordable housing complex under federal law, Spirit on Lake cannot require tenants to be either gay or elderly. Single applicants qualify by earning $28,500 a year or less. Rent is $720 for a one-bedroom apartment and $870 for a two-bedroom unit.
Every unit at Spirit on Lake is occupied, and building manager Kathleen Tully said about three-quarters of the residents are gay seniors. Rainbow flags hang from some of the building’s balconies. A stairwell along one corner of the building even has rainbow-colored windows.
"What you can do is direct your marketing, you can do outreach within your target population," PRG executive director Kathy Wetzel-Mastel said.
Lovaasen said he battled depression after the ravages of his disease forced him out of the workforce nearly two decades ago. He’d been living in subsidized housing for people with HIV, run by an organization that struck a partnership with Spirit on Lake to fill several units. Lovaasen was thrilled to land one of them.
"You get used to being just tolerated," Lovaasen said. "It’s nice to be the majority for once."
Kirby and her late partner met as nuns in the same convent. Now 58, alone for three years and dealing with a disability, Kirby said she finally feels secure again. The rest of the building is mostly comprised of Somali residents, a reflection of the neighborhood Sprit on Lake is in. Kirby’s worries about cultural conflicts with her neighbors have not been borne out.
"We were decorating for the holidays and a young Somali girl, a high school student, came down to help us decorate," Kirby said. "They’re starting to reach out and that’s how you break down barriers."
Spirit on Lake’s only forbear is Triangle Square, which opened in West Hollywood, Calif., in 2007. Projects in Chicago and Philadelphia are slated to open in 2014.
Hertz is a spry 72-year-old, and was wearing a Dame Edna T-shirt the December day he was interviewed. In 1983, he opened A Brother’s Touch, for years the only GLBT bookstore in Minneapolis. He shut it down in 2003.
As old age loomed, Hertz said he feared suffering the same experience as a longtime friend.
"He went into a retirement home and went right back into the closet. And he made it known he didn’t want anybody to come visit him and say they were gay," Hertz said. "Everybody around here, we don’t have to do that anymore. It’s like being able to breathe."