Alex Sangha says the time has come for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender seniors to have a place of their own to retire.
His nascent plan, called Dignity House, must first raise $25,000 for a study on the feasibility of low-income housing for queer elders.
Sangha, a 40-year-old master’s student at Dalhousie University, is not the first person to propose a gay retirement home for the Lower Mainland.
Qmunity’s Generations Project went a different route. They have been working to integrate gay seniors into conventional seniors’ housing. The Generations Project has, for example, trained workers at Royal Arch in Vancouver to be sensitive to elder queers. As part of a new initiative this year, Generations is working with the BC ombudsperson to start training elder care professionals across the province in queer issues.
Dean Malone, the owner of Plum Living, meanwhile, started to plan a residential community for gay seniors in 2008. Four years later, he is still collecting deposits to start the proposed community, which would include 150 condos and 25 assisted-living units.
Whether condos, low-income housing or retirement homes, the need for a space for gay seniors is growing. Baby boomers are reaching retirement age, and along with them the first openly gay generation. A 22-year-old who rioted at Stonewall or a 34-year-old arrested in the Toronto bathhouse raids will reach retirement age this year.
As Sangha points out, many gay and lesbian seniors don’t have children or extended families to look after them. Without support, seniors can be forced back in the closet if workers and neighbours in seniors’ homes aren’t accepting.
“I think it’s a vulnerable population,” Sangha says. “It’s a group that has fought for our human rights for generations. They also took a huge toll with the HIV epidemic, and I think it’s our duty to protect those who have helped us and given us our rights where we are today.”
Pat Hogan is the organizer of BOLDFest, a conference for older lesbians in Vancouver. She says it is difficult to reliably educate other people, and dedicated seniors’ housing would be a better way to create a safe space. She would like to see housing with a focus on communal, social living and, especially, low cost.
But creating retirement housing for queer seniors won’t be easy. Dara Parker, executive director of Qmunity, says there’s a reason that such a project has not yet succeeded. “Mounting a major infrastructure project is difficult,” she says. “You need a lot of buy-in from a lot of different stakeholder groups, and there is huge capital and operating costs associated. So it doesn’t surprise me that there have been challenges in moving forward. It’s a huge expenditure.”
While there are gay-friendly seniors’ homes in Canada — such as Montreal’s Pavillon Latour, Toronto’s Fudger House, Vancouver’s Royal Arch and Halifax’s incomplete Spirit Place — Dignity House would be the first project explicitly for gay people if completed.
Eric Harrison is the executive director of Gay and Lesbian Elder Housing in the United States. His organization built Triangle Square, a gay retirement affordable-housing complex in Los Angeles that inspired Sangha to try the same thing in Vancouver. There’s no question that Triangle Square has been successful. Applicants now face a seven-year, 300-person waiting list for a unit.
Harrison says that creating Triangle Square meant bringing together every resource possible: government funding, financing, foundations and charities, as well as $1.5-million in private donations. The key, he says, is educating people about how important housing is to the health and care of seniors. Five years later, he says it is still hard work to keep donors interested and Triangle Square sustainable.
Funding isn’t the only barrier. Sangha says some have challenged the idea of creating an exclusively queer space, calling it discriminatory. He disagrees, pointing to ethnicity-focused homes such as the Guru Nanak Niwas independent living facility in Surrey, which provides special language and food services for South Asian clients but admits all ethnicities.
“What’s wrong with having choice? If you have choice and a variety of options for people to choose when they retire, that’s a positive thing,” he says. “We build affordable housing for every demographic under the sun. I don’t see why LGBT people should be any different.”
At this point, Sangha is soliciting donations for the feasibility study and has accumulated a dossier of letters of support from gay and seniors organizations, including Qmunity and the West End Seniors Community Planning Table. He recognizes, however, that it will be years before his project can come to fruition.