Imagine spending your entire life fighting against discrimination—only to reach old age and retreat back to the closet for fear of intolerant residents or care workers. Now imagine being forced out of your neighbourhood by skyrocketing rent costs. For Vancouver’s aging LGBTT community—this is a grim reality.
Alex Sangha, 40, of Vancouver is trying to fundraise $25 thousand for a feasibility study for a LGBTT friendly affordable housing complex for elderly LGBTT. Sangha, a social worker and activist calls his project, “Dignity House—A Vision for LGBTT Senior Housing for Vancouver.”
The project is part of Sangha’s master’s degree in social work that he is pursing at Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia. He was inspired by a YouTube video on Triangle Square in Hollywood—an affordable housing facility for LGBTT seniors in Los Angeles.
“If it can happen in Hollywood it can happen in Hollywood North,” Sangha says. He notes that Hollywood had a similar housing crisis as Vancouver currently faces, which forces vulnerable LGBTT seniors to be at risk of homelessness.
Triangle Square in Hollywood provides affordable housing for low-income LGBTT seniors as well as safety and acceptance that they might not otherwise receive at mainstream facilities. The facility provides a place to forge friendships and retire in comfort.
Sangha says that LGBTT seniors have acute needs, which are not met in cookie cutter care facilities. “The generation of people who are living in care homes today live in a heterosexual world. Even if there are only a few people who are homophobic in the care home they still can pose a risk to LGBTT seniors.”
Sangha adds that LGBTT seniors can fall victim to elder abuse and discrimination, which causes them to stay in their homes.
Catherine Kohm, the Executive Director of Haro Park Centre, a senior’s care centre in Vancouver’s West End, told CBC News, “So if you’re 100 and you’ve never been exposed to a lesbian who is out—there may be some tension.” She adds that gay and lesbian retirees who may have lived openly before coming into a retirement home often go back into the closet.
Sangha says that living in a welcoming environment has a huge impact on psychological health and well-being of LGBTT seniors. He notes that LGBTT seniors have higher rates of depression, substance abuse, and suicide than their heterosexual counterparts, adding that they are at risk of social isolation due to the deaths of friends, and many lack generational and family support.
Sangha says that Dignity House would not reinforce segregation of LGBTT seniors. It is open to friends, families, allies, and supporters. He likens the concept to a South Asian community in Surrey that provides culturally sensitive services such as meals and dances, yet the centre is open for all sectors of the population.
Another issue for LGBTT seniors is Vancouver’s housing crisis. “Vancouver is a very inflated housing market. So many people are being squeezed out of downtown. Are we going to let the seniors be moved out? We need to plan for this structural shift in the community,” says Sangha.
Craig Tapping, an English professor at VIU, is familiar with the Dignity House project and says that, “If, as the stereotype runs, gay men are rich, [Dignity House] would have been built 20 or 30 years ago. But the fact that it has to become a project and a battle and a political alliance and a struggle reveals the lie of the stereotype—most gay men are not well off. Few have worked at solid, established jobs while being out. Gay men just do not have economic strength individually to build for their old age.”
The issue is close to Tapping, who identifies as being gay and is nearing retirement. He says that the main barriers LGBTT seniors face are gaining access to housing, healthcare, and long-term care.
Tapping says that many LGBTT seniors feel uncomfortable with heterosexual social events planned in seniors homes.
“In a seniors home at whatever level they organize events for seniors to participate in, and they make a great deal of giggle and fuss over older men and older women getting sweet on each other and doing things together and if you’re gay or lesbian and you’re in that position you can’t even feel comfortable participating and yet if you are out then it doesn’t matter about the caregivers—the rest of that community in there are the people you grew up with who denied your existence all along from school upwards. I don’t think it’s a fault of caregivers. I think it’s the larger community and that’s why I am in favour of these homes. I don’t think it’s anything to do with transforming the health care system.
“How do you talk to people who have lived their lives in heterosexually isolated situations who have not dealt with feminism, gay liberation, and the last 50 years of social change? These people are all around us, all the time. And it’s not up to LGBT seniors to educate the world, is it?”