LGBTQ New Yorkers face major issues when they age, especially surrounding housing. Credit: Viktor Makhnov

As rainbow flags hang throughout New York City, I can’t help but wonder how many LGBTQ elders will spend Pride Month worried about housing. According to SAGE, a nonprofit advocating for LGBTQ+ elders, safe, affordable, and consistent housing is a significant concern for LGBTQ people in our city, especially as they age.

It is something my wife and I worry about as we get older: How can we age in dignity when we begin living off a fixed income? Housing security scares us.

If you’re thinking lots of New Yorkers worry about housing, you’re right. But for aging queer people, especially those who are Black or transgender, housing insecurity is exacerbated by discrimination, disparities, and a higher likelihood of not having children. 

The challenges of not having traditional caregivers

LGBTQ older adults are four times less likely to have children, according to SAGE. As a result, many do not have adult children to take care of them. 

Some elderly LGBTQ people might have nieces or nephews to fill the role, but others may have cut ties with unaccepting families. 

Darcy Connors, the Executive Director of SAGEServes, a division within SAGE, says this is why caregiver relationships with LGBTQ people often rely on a chosen family. Instead of a daughter or niece, the caregiver might be a neighbor, long-term friend, or even a former partner. 

“That’s why we take care of each other, because we have to,” Connors says.

You may be wondering: Why not just move into a retirement home? That’s not always the answer. Connors says 60% of LGBTQ elders fear they will be abused, neglected, or refused care at senior living communities. 

“I spent a decade as a nursing home administrator in Florida, and part of that was seeing folks re-closet themselves for fear of discrimination,” Connors says. 

A lifetime out of the closet — only to return to the closet

According to the civil rights organization Equal Rights Center, 48% of older same-sex couples applying for elder housing have dealt with discrimination. It’s no wonder so many elders “re-closet” themselves when seeking senior housing. 

“It starts with fear,” Connors says. “That’s a pretty quick slippery slope into depression and anxiety and other mental health concerns that a lot of older adults deal with anyway, but it’s exacerbated by the fact that you can’t be your authentic self.” 

To understand what it’s like when someone re-closets themselves, look at the photos below.

This photo helps visualize someone living a full and proud life. Credit: SAGE

Think about what the photo above tells you about the person who lives here. 

“This person might be trans. They love their wife or spouse. They have a beautiful connection to their community, and they obviously have an LGBTQ-plus identity with that beautiful progress flag on the wall,”  explains Connors. 

Now take it all away:

This photo shows what it feels like to “re-closet” yourself. Credit: SAGE

“The room is just a bed and a dresser. And what do you see there? How does that room make you feel as a person?” Connors says. 

She remembers an 80-year-old woman who lived in a nursing home where she worked, who hid photos of her deceased wife inside a suitcase: “She was so scared that the nurses might treat her differently because she was a lesbian. It’s just heartbreaking.” 

Think about all the things that make you “you,” she says. How would it feel to pack those things in a suitcase? 

But NYC is different, right? 

In New York State, the LGBTQ+ and HIV Long-Term Care Bill of Rights was signed into law in 2023. It protects LGBTQ+ people and those living with HIV in long-term care facilities. It helps but doesn’t solve all problems, such as the cost of housing. 

It’s an expensive place to live, especially if you’re coming as an older adult fleeing another area,” Connors says.  

Housing costs are magnified when you look at poverty rates in older Black queer communities. Research shows that 40% of Black LGBTQ older adults live at or below the federal poverty level, compared to 30% of non-Hispanic white LGBTQ adults. And while there is no specific data showing what that number is for Black trans people, data shows that just over 47% of older trans adults overall live in poverty. 

Many older LGBTQ people rely on housing vouchers, but as we’ve reported in the past, there is discrimination around vouchers. Many of SAGE’s clients have been turned away when trying to use vouchers. 

The number of LGBTQ+ older adults in the U.S. is expected to grow to around 7 million by 2030. Credit: Carmen Maria Vivanco Solano

“Discrimination based on age, gender, sexual orientation, HIV status, is all illegal,” says Connors. “But it still is occurring, but under different names.”

For example, SAGE’s clients often speak to real estate agents over the phone to confirm an apartment’s price, but when the agent sees them in person, they suddenly increase the price, she explains.

Housing solutions

There are currently two affordable housing complexes geared toward LGBTQ older communities in New York City: Stonewall House in Brooklyn and Crotona Pride House in the Bronx. While the complexes are not exclusively LBGTQ, they provide an affordable home for older LGBTQ  people to age in dignity and respect. 

According to SAGE, around 90% of transgender and gender non-conforming older adults fear discrimination when searching for a home. Credit: SAGE

Bill Meehan, 80, is a member of the LGBTQ community who lives in Stonewall House. He moved there in 2020 when his Jackson Heights rental became unaffordable. 

“It was sort of a sad solution. I had to do it. I couldn’t keep on trying to get rent together,” he says. 

He enjoyed an active life in his old neighborhood, where he was a community board member and volunteered with several neighborhood projects but at Stonewall House, his rent is only $640 a month. Meehan is grateful but says Stonewall House’s 145 units are not enough to meet the need for housing. In addition, he says it was stressful applying to the housing lottery to get in, hoping he would be accepted and waiting for the development to be built (it was completed in 2019). What Meehan advocates for is not more housing but expanding Section 8, so aging people don’t need to leave their homes. 

“Everything you read about seniors is that they do well and they do best if they can just age in place. I could have stayed in Jackson Heights, I could have aged with a lot of help from the community,” he says. 

The community did help. Before he moved, he collapsed on the street on two different occasions, and his neighbors took him home and helped him with care. 

Meehan, who is on the Stonewall House Tenants Association, says this would help everyone, not just LGBTQ elders. 

“There’s a whole generation of people that are in the same boat,” he says.

What can we do?

While we may not have the power as individuals to change New York City’s housing crisis, there are actions you can take to help older people who are LGBTQ. The first step is to listen to them.

“Too often people talk for us,” Meehan says. “Not making us part of conversations to me is something that’s missing in the equations right now and has to be addressed.”

While Connors hopes more affordable homes will be built, especially after Governor Kathy Hochul’s 2023 investment of $20 million in housing for LGBTQ elders, she says younger folks can help older generations with simple things, like getting to know their neighbors. 

“A great example someone gave me was that they saw a neighbor whose husband had passed away and didn’t realize that this was a trans woman that was living alone at this point, and just started engaging with her.” 

The woman had walled herself off from the community because it was just her and her older husband for such a long time. 

“Here was a chance for a young LGBTQ-plus youth to say, ‘I’m going to support you and come visit you,’” says Connors. 

If you want to help an LGBTQ elder, SAGE  can connect you with someone in need.

The organization has a mental wellness app called Hear Me, which allows older folks to text one-on-one with trained, empathetic listeners. This helps older queer people who are isolated be seen, heard, and validated. SAGE also has a Friendly Visiting program, where volunteers agree to visit older adults once a week for a year.     

Some of it is as simple as a volunteer bringing their groceries home for them because they can’t lift them up their walk-up,” Connors says.  

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