By Brandon Wolf
“Jack was never one to hide the fact that he was gay, but it became a secret again once he reached his 80s and his health began declining. Also secret were his living conditions—he had no air conditioning and had become physically and mentally unable to keep up his home. Jack remembered a time when paramedics refused to treat gay men. Now Jack was resistant to senior-care providers because he would have to put his publications and artwork away. When Jack’s sense of isolation became acute, he reluctantly agreed to allow a staff member from the Montrose Center into his home.”
“Ralph lived with the love of his life from 1955 until his partner died in 2000. Deep in grief, Ralph stopped socializing until an LGBT-affirming church offered him a job and a renewed purpose as a minister. When Ralph retired at the age of 84, he was in need of skilled nursing care. Due to his financial situation, a facility on the outskirts of Houston was his only option.
Ralph was forced to leave behind the home he had shared with his partner, as well as keepsakes and photos that he feared might “out” him to his new neighbors and caretakers. After 60 years of being “out and proud,” Ralph was back in the closet. Ultimately, friends became aware of his circumstances, and because of his career in ministry, Ralph was placed in a Montrose hospice. Had it not been for the hospice, the community he so faithfully served might not have learned of Ralph’s passing.”
Are Jack and Ralph fictional characters, used for marketing purposes? No. Jack Jackson and Rev. Ralph Lasher are two men widely known throughout Houston’s LGBT community. While the Montrose Center does not use their last names in publicity materials, they allowed OutSmart to identify them in order to humanize the problems faced by LGBT seniors.
Seniors Preparing for Rainbow Years (SPRY)
Jackson was the inspiration that prompted the Montrose Center to begin their innovative Seniors Preparing for Rainbow Years (SPRY) program in 2005. Over the past decade, it has continued to grow in size and scope. In 2015, it served 2,721 meals in their Montrose Diner free-lunch program on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays for those over age 60. Over 2,000 people attended 45 SPRY outreach events last year.
The SPRY program includes men’s and women’s support groups, professional counseling, case management, social and recreational activities, health and wellness education, and the Montrose Diner drop-in center and congregate lunch program.
Ann Robison, executive director of The Montrose Center, speaks about Jackson with great fondness. Every year, Jackson served as the perennial “leprechaun” at their annual “Bringin’ in the Green” fundraiser, encouraging guests to pin money to his green-sequined outfits. When Robison heard about Jackson’s emotionally detached state, she became determined to do something to change his living circumstances.
The LGBT Seniors Facility Begins as a Dream
Robison says she and clinical director Chris Kerr started talking about a facility for LGBT seniors at least six years ago, and continued to revisit the subject often.
On January 26, 2012, the Center screened the newly released and critically acclaimed documentary Gen Silent. The film follows six LGBT seniors in their struggle to survive in our country’s inadequate eldercare system.
The film surprised and troubled viewers. Many LGBT seniors are so afraid of discrimination by caregivers (or bullying from other seniors) that many simply go back into the closet. The film’s subtitle is The Generation that Fought the Hardest to Come Out Is Going Back In—To Survive.
The next year, at the Center’s “Big Gay Block Party,” on September 20, 2013, Robison first talked with then-mayor Annise Parker about building an LGBT senior facility. They had only a few minutes to talk, but Parker was extremely interested in the concept, because she had just visited an LGBT-focused housing facility, Triangle Square, for low-income seniors in Los Angeles.
Parker remembers: “When I toured Triangle Square, I was convinced Houston had the resources to make a similar LGBT residential facility happen.”
Parker reconnected with Robison after the block party event to get an update on the Center’s internal discussions about the lack of affordable senior housing. Then, assisted by Texas state representative Garnet Coleman, Parker worked with the Midtown Redevelopment Authority on a commitment of land. The city’s housing department made a commitment of several million dollars, through Tax Increment Reinvestment Zone (TIRZ) financing.
The Center then developed a financing strategy and began a design process. A capital campaign was launched. The total project will cost about $23.6 million.
An Affirming LGBT Senior Environment
The property, at 2222 Cleburne, is about a mile and a half east of the Center in the historic Third Ward. The finished facility will feature 112 one- and two-bedroom independent-living apartments spread out across two interconnecting four-story buildings. At the ground level, the complex will include parking spaces, a dog park, a gardening area, a water feature, courtyards, and a shade structure. A privacy fence will enclose the complex.
The buildings are situated on the lot at an angle, which breaks the monotony of complexes that look like big boxes. That angle will also orient the buildings so that direct east-west sunlight can better illuminate the apartments. The apartment buildings’ outside staircases will be covered with mesh bearing the traditional colors of the rainbow—purple, blue, green, red, orange, and yellow.
Two-story structures at the north end of the complex will house a group dining area, computer and fitness rooms, a resident library, and a lounge area. Management offices and a geriatric primary-care clinic run by Legacy Community Health will also be located in those structures.
The apartment buildings will have limited access, and when the administrative offices are closed, the entire complex will become a gated community accessible only by residents.
When the complex is completed, the Montrose Center’s SPRY activities will be consolidated at the new facility. New programming will be developed to include job placement and skills training, social and recreational services, expanded group meals, and community-facilitated peer interaction.
Two Metro bus lines have stops right across the street from the northern end of the facility, and MetroRail’s proposed University Line plans to have a rail station across from the complex’s west side.
Although this housing project cannot be limited to only LGBT residents, the Montrose Center will place a strong emphasis on marketing the facility throughout Houston’s LGBT community. Approximately 9 percent of the units will be designated for individuals living with HIV/AIDS.
The Center will contract with Covenant Community Capital to provide property management services, while the Center will provide the social services. A leasing agent has not yet been identified. Both Covenant and the Center will ensure that the facility is LGBT-affirming. With seniors in the Third Ward being priced out of their homes, just as LGBT seniors in Montrose are, the facility will work to serve these two communities together.
Applicants must be 62 years of age and older, and rental rates will be on a sliding scale to help those with low incomes.
Stories from Potential Residents
Debra Letchworth, 62, moved to Houston two-and-a-half years ago from Phoenix, Arizona. She came out as a lesbian in her 40s and is proud of her 22 years of sobriety.
Life threw her some curveballs when she relocated to Houston and the living arrangements she was promised fell through. She ended up homeless for two months and lost all of her possessions. She now lives on disability income of $14,000 per year at New Hope Housing, a supportive housing facility for low-income residents near Minute Maid Park.
She has a small bedroom, bathroom, and kitchen at New Hope, and she uses public transportation to go to Lambda Center meetings, the Montrose Diner, and to do her shopping. Letchworth is not out to her fellow New Hope residents.
The planned LGBT facility is great news to her. She says, “Knowing that I would have a stable place to come home to at night and be living amongst ‘family’ would be so wonderful.”
John Richardson, 70, says, “The most important thing we all hold dear is our freedom. I love the thought of living in an environment where I am not judged for who I am or for who I am with. Being with ‘my people,’ especially at my age, would greatly enhance my quality of life.”
Dana Hinton, 61, came out as a transgender woman in 2011. “I’d lived my life for other people, and felt it was finally time for me to be authentic.” She is out and accepted at work, but she knows that as the economy changes, layoffs can be “just a paycheck away.”
As a non-degreed professional, Hinton says it has been nearly impossible to save for her retirement. Social Security will probably be the only income she will have to live on. “I live day by day,” she says. “It would be wonderful to have the security that the new facility can provide for someone with a low income.”
Seniors in general have their difficulties, and the rise in Montrose property values has forced many LGBT seniors to move to cheaper areas that may not be as accepting. The defeat of the HERO ordinance last year means that LGBT Houstonians can still be legally discriminated against in housing.
Financing the Facility
Although Kent Loftin, chief development officer for the housing project, says that “the financing is complicated,” he seems to be confident that the numbers can be made to work. Of the $23.6 million needed to build the facility:
• 10 percent is the land, an in-kind contribution by the Midtown Redevelopment Authority
• 11 percent is from the city through tax increment reinvestment zone financing
• 30 percent comes from the federal low-income housing tax credit program
• 22 percent is through traditional financing
• 27 percent will be private contributions raised through the Montrose Center’s current capital campaign.
The Hollyfield Foundation, the Brown Foundation, and The LTR Lewis Cloverdale Foundation have generously anchored the capital campaign. But in order to qualify for the Midtown land contribution, the capital campaign must still raise $1 million by December 31, 2016.
Once that amount is raised, the final architectural plans can be prepared. Organizers are hoping for a fall 2017 groundbreaking and a summer 2018 grand opening of the facility.
Robison says that one way Houston’s LGBT community can help is by inviting the campaign development team to holiday parties to chat with guests. The team’s prepared presentation There’s No Place Like Home lasts only a few minutes. Team members can mingle with the guests and answer questions, but they will not make direct solicitations. It’s a nice way to make a party meaningful and help spread the word about this important community initiative.
Reflecting on the plans for the new facility, Robison is pleased with the way so many people have come together to help to make this dream come true. Whenever she remembers her friend and colleague Jack Jackson and Rev. Ralph Lasher, she is reminded that the task is well worth the effort.
And with each passing day, it’s becoming easier for Robison to relate to the senior’s experience. “Next year, I’ll be eligible to apply!” she says.
Brandon Wolf is a frequent contributor to OutSmart magazine.
Four online slide shows below provide:
- A look at the two men whose troubling senior experiences led to the creation of SPRY and to the effort to build an LGBT seniors facility.
- The history of The Montrose Center’s seniors program from its beginnings in 2005 to the present.
- A variety of initial renderings of the proposed facility and preliminary apartment floor plans for the Houston facility.
- A look at what other cities are doing for LGBT seniors housing.
Jack Jackson and Ralph Lasher
Two men, both very active in Houston’s LGBT community for decades, unknowingly became the inspirations for the SPRY program – and for the proposed seniors housing facility. As they entered into their 80’s, they found themselves going back into the closet.
Jackson became isolated and detached. The SPRY program was founded to assure that there would be adequate support for other seniors as they aged.
Lasher retired to a nursing home, but went back into the closet. The new LGBT housing facility is designed to give seniors a place to age safely and comfortably with ‘family’.
Jackson and Lasher make the issue of LGBT senior housing a very personal one. The following slide show traces their high points in life and illustrates how easily seniors can find their lives becoming unstable as they age.
The History of The Center’s Programs for Seniors
In 2005, The Montrose Center began its SPRY (Seniors Preparing for Rainbow Years) program. It has continued to expand in scope, serving more and more people.
The proposed LGBT senior housing facility is the biggest project yet undertaken by the Center, to provide for seniors. The following slide show gives a quick history of SPRY’s first decade.
Renderings and Apartment Floor Plan
A capital campaign for the LGBT seniors facility is still underway. Most important is meeting the $1 million goal by December 31, 2016, so that the in-kind donation of land becomes a reality.
Center planners hope for a fall 2017 groundbreaking at 2222 Cleburne, and a move-in date in the fall of 2018.
The following renderings and floor plans are preliminary designs, and the finalized plans may have some modifications. The Houston LGBT community was asked for input during the design stage, and offered a number of ideas that were then incorporated into these drawings.
The Active Initiative for LGBT Senior Housing
The national organization for LGBT seniors, SAGE, has an ongoing and active housing initiative for LGBT-affirming living spaces.
Some cities such as Los Angeles and Philadelphia already have housing projects completed and occupied. In several other cities, housing construction has either begun or the financing for the projects is underway.
The issue of LGBT-affirming housing for seniors has now entered the national dialogue, with even the White House involved in coordinating conferences for representatives from across the country.