Elaine Watson, on the brink of 62, has been out as a gay woman since the 1980s — but as she's started thinking about affordable housing for seniors, old apprehensions about acceptance and judgment have crept back up.
When Watson turns 65, she will lose a disability policy through her private insurer that has significantly helped her remain above water financially during her retirement. Watson, who has diabetes and major depression, will then depend exclusively on social security, and will no longer be able to afford her apartment. As she begins the search for affordable senior housing, she has kept in mind that Houston has no equal rights ordinance, and there is no guarantee that senior housing management or even others who live there will be accepting of her sexuality.
"As people get older, they tend to get more fixed in their beliefs, so it can be a real problem to find a place where you can really be comfortable and be yourself," she said. "I don't have a partner at the moment, but if my prayers are answered there will be someone special in my life, and I can just imagine the gossip and maybe even outright hostility if I were to share an apartment with someone who is my lover."
Then Watson heard about the Montrose Center's LGBTQ-affirming senior housing facility, unveiled recently and slated for construction at the start of next year.
The project, called "There's No Place Like Home," will be the first LGBTQ-affirming senior living facility in Texas and in the South in general. Kent Loftin, chief development officer with the Montrose Center, said it was something the center began thinking about two years ago, near the end of former mayor Annise Parker's administration. While in Los Angeles for a fundraiser, Loftin said, Parker learned of L.A.'s LGBT-affirming retirement facility, one of only a handful in the country's largest cities such as New York, Chicago and San Francisco. When she came back, Houston's first openly gay mayor and the Montrose Center put their heads together to begin brainstorming how they could find the funds and support to build a similar housing facility in Houston.
"There's wasn't any affirming place where seniors could go where they feel they can be understood culturally, or have picture of their significant others, or live with their same-sex partners," Loftin said. "A lot of people don't realize in Houston that some of the most vulnerable seniors are LGBT. They are twice as likely as their heterosexual peers to be aging alone, and four times less likely than their heterosexual peers to have the money they need to retire."
Should everything work out, the project will be built at 2222 Cleburne in Midtown and will include 122 units. There will also be a diner open five days a week, a health clinic, coffee shop, a dog park and vegetable garden. While much of the programming will be for LGBTQ seniors, the housing facility will still be open to straight people too. Loftin said the Montrose Center has so far raised more than $2.5 million to go toward the project over the past two years. Various other grants, such as from the Midtown Redevelopment Authority and federal tax credit approvals, are pending, bringing the estimated total to just under $8 million. This summer, the Montrose Center plans to launch a campaign for the housing center and increasing fundraising efforts.
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Loftin said the building will be named after Bob Lewis, a gay man who was highly supportive of Houston's LGBT senior community and who died of AIDS complications in 1997. It was also inspired by Jack (whom the Montrose Center only identified by his first name for privacy reasons), who went back into the closet once he was in his 80s for fear that senior care providers would not be willing to help him. It's a problem that has continued for seniors today, Loftin said.
"Many of them are going back in the closet so they can secure a place to stay," he said. "Some of that is because they have faced discrimination in these facilities; some of that is because they know the facilities are run by religious organizations that don't support LGBT rights."
Construction is slated to begin in 2018, though Loftin does not expect doors to open until 2020.
For Watson, it will be right on time.