Donald Carter poses for a photograph Thursday, Dec. 15, 2011 in Philadelphia. Carter knows his arthritis and other age-related infirmities will not allow him to live indefinitely in his third-floor walkup apartment in Philadelphia. But as a low-income renter, Carter has limited options. And as a gay black man, he's concerned his choice of senior living facilities might be narrowed further by the possibility of intolerant residents or staff members. Elder advocates say a lack of gay-friendly affordable housing for seniors is leading many to hide their sexual orientation after years of being open about it. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)
Updated: February 3, 2012 8:09AM
PHILADELPHIA — At age 62, Donald Carter knows his arthritis and other age-related infirmities will not allow him to live indefinitely in his third-floor walk-up apartment in Philadelphia.
But as a low-income renter, Carter has limited options. And as a gay black man, he’s concerned his choice of senior living facilities might be narrowed further by the possibility of intolerant residents or staff members.
“The system as it stands is not very accommodating,” Carter said. “I don’t really want to see any kind of negative attitude or lack of service because anyone ... is gay or lesbian.”
Many gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender seniors fear discrimination, disrespect or worse by health care workers and residents of elder housing facilities, ultimately leading many back into the closet after years of being open, experts say.
That anxiety takes on new significance as the first of the 77 million baby boomers turns 65 this year. At least 1.5 million seniors are gay, a number expected to double by 2030, according to SAGE, the New York-based group Services and Advocacy for GLBT Elders.
Recognizing the need, developers in Philadelphia have secured a site and initial funding for what would be one of the nation’s few GLBT-friendly affordable housing facilities. They hope to break ground on a 52-unit, $17 million building for seniors in 2013.
Anti-discrimination laws prohibit gay-only housing, but projects can be made GLBT-friendly through marketing and location. And while private retirement facilities targeted at the gay community exist, such residences are often out of reach for all but the wealthiest seniors.
Census figures released this month indicate about 49 percent of Americans over 65 could be considered poor or low-income.
Gays are also less likely to have biological family to help out with informal caregiving, either through estrangement or being childless, making them more dependent on outside services. And that makes them more vulnerable, SAGE executive director Michael Adams said.
“They cannot at all assume that they will be treated well or given the welcome mat,” he said.
Cities including Chicago and San Francisco also have projects on the drawing board. But the first and, so far, only affordable housing complex for gay elders to be built in the United States is Triangle Square-Hollywood in Los Angeles.
Open since 2007, the $22 million facility has 104 units available to any low-income senior 62 and over, gay or straight, according to executive director Mark Supper.
The Triangle’s population is about 90 percent GLBT and it has a waiting list of about 200 people. The project’s developer, Gay & Lesbian Elder Housing, plans to build a second facility in Southern California in the next 18 months, Supper said.
But what took so long for the need to recognized? Chris Bartlett, executive director of the GLBT William Way Center in Philadelphia, noted that advocates spent the better part of two decades devoting their energy to programs for those affected by HIV or AIDS, which were decimating the gay community.
While AIDS remains a priority, Bartlett said, the crisis mentality has passed and allowed the community to focus on other things. He said he looks forward to the Way Center providing social services at the planned Philadelphia senior housing facility, in a sense repaying those who led the gay liberation movement.
“Don’t we owe it to them . . . to ensure that they have an experience as elders that’s worthy of what they gave to our community?” Bartlett said.