The walls of Alice Herman’s home are covered in photographs.
Herman and Sylvia Purdue, her partner of 45 years, smile in scenes from birthdays and hospital rooms. In black-and-white photos from their younger days, their hair is teased, their makeup flawless.
After Purdue died a few years ago, Herman was left with two cats and enough money for two months’ rent. Years of Purdue’s hospital bills had chipped away their savings. Because Purdue died before the Supreme Court struck down a key part of the federal Defense of Marriage Act last summer, Herman could not receive Purdue’s Social Security benefits.
Herman prepared to live in her car with the cats. With no other options, she went to the front office of Triangle Square — a Hollywood apartment complex that caters to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender senior citizens — clutching her photos.
“Please like me,” Herman, 78, recalled telling them, desperately showing the photos. “Please, see that we’re nice people. Please help me.”
Leaders in Los Angeles’ gay community say Herman’s predicament is increasingly common. Though society has changed rapidly over the last several years and gay people overall feel greater acceptance, gay seniors face a unique set of challenges as they age, particularly when trying to find affordable housing.
“This is the first generation of people who were willing to be out,” said Lorri L. Jean, chief executive of the L.A. Gay & Lesbian Center. “And many LGBT seniors are far poorer than people ever realize.”
Gay seniors are four times less likely than their straight counterparts to have children or grandchildren to support them and twice as likely to live alone, according to a study by the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force Policy Institute. Many face difficulties accessing their partners’ benefits because they never got married or sought domestic partnership status.
Nationwide, an estimated 2 million people age 50 and older identify as LGBT, and that number is expected to double by 2030, according to the Institute for Multigenerational Health at the University of Washington. An estimated 65,000 LGBT people age 65 and older live in Los Angeles, according to the L.A. Gay & Lesbian Center.
Triangle Square, where Herman was able to rent an apartment, is the only affordable housing complex in Los Angeles that caters to LGBT seniors. There, Herman has learned from the struggles of other gay elders and talks often about her beloved Purdue.
“One of the things old people need is a place where they can hold on to the past,” she said. “No one should have to hide their history because the history is who they are. I am my history. I am the years I spent with that woman.”
She knows she’s lucky. Some gay seniors who move into traditional elder housing facilities return to the closet in hopes of better fitting in and avoiding conflicts, said Kathleen Sullivan, director of senior services at the L.A. Gay & Lesbian Center.
Despite great strides in gay rights in recent years, the advances are not as pronounced in older generations, where attitudes can be less tolerant, Sullivan said. Some gay seniors who move into traditional senior living facilities report feeling discriminated against or given the cold shoulder.
“Living in a place like that, you’re surrounded by people but you’re invisible,” Sullivan said.
A survey released this year by the Equal Rights Center, a Washington, D.C.-based civil rights group, found that gay seniors received less favorable quotes on pricing and availability when seeking rooms at senior centers than straight seniors.
Sullivan recalled one elderly lesbian who moved into an assisted living facility in Oregon. The woman made a few friends who ate lunch and played bridge with her. Eventually, she got up the courage to come out to them, and they “immediately disassociated with her,” Sullivan said. She eventually left the facility and moved into a home with several other older lesbians.
When Triangle Square, built by nonprofit Gay & Lesbian Elder Housing (GLEH) and partners, opened in 2007, it was the only affordable housing complex for gay seniors in the nation. It remains one of only a handful.
Earlier this month, the L.A. Gay & Lesbian Center announced a merger with GLEH with the hopes that the joint operation will allow them to more quickly build additional housing. About 70% of GLEH’s residents live at or near poverty level.
Later this spring, GLEH, in partnership with affordable housing developer AMCAL Multi-Housing Inc., will open Los Angeles’ second affordable housing complex catering to LGBT seniors. The $17.5-million multigenerational complex, called the Argyle, will have 39 units, some of which will be occupied by gay seniors. Under federal fair housing rules, the complex and other low-income housing facilities catering to gay seniors cannot exclude straight people and still qualify for federal subsidies, so straight people are eligible as well, Sullivan said.
The L.A. Gay & Lesbian Center recently purchased property for another complex that will offer housing for LGBT seniors and youth, center officials said.
The current waiting list for the 104-unit Triangle Square complex is three to five years. Center staff are currently reviewing applications for the Argyle.
Among the applicants is David Epstein, a 64-year-old retired magazine editor who described his life as “one long hate crime.”
Epstein lives in a one-bedroom Silver Lake apartment he can barely afford, especially with rent increasing rapidly. After paying rent, he has a few hundred dollars a month for food, medicine and other expenses. He said if he had a car, he’d move into it. Every day, he checks the mail expectantly to see if he got a room at the Argyle.
Epstein said coming out of the closet was a scarring experience, isolating him from family and co-workers. He worries about more of the same if he moves into a regular senior living center. He believes his generation deserves better, including its own retirement communities.
“We did a lot of heavy lifting,” he said.