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Senior and out of the closet: DC nonprofit aims to provide affordable housing for LGBT elders

Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton speaks at a Mary's House "birthday party" and interfaith blessing. Mary's House for Older Adults is one of a handful of communities in the entire country specifically for LGBT seniors

Dr. Imani Woody, founder of Mary's House for Older Adults

A drawing of the proposed house

When it opens, Mary's House for Older Adults will be one of the few housing options in the country especially for LGBT seniors. 
Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender seniors are now facing little-known challenges with even less support. While safe and secure housing is one of the most important amenities for seniors, the LGBT community faces discrimination at much higher rates than their heterosexual counterparts.
In recent years, a movement has been bubbling in the affordable housing movement for this group to have housing dedicated to their unique needs. 
“Targeted housing and services provide a safe space for seniors that are from a generation that is less comfortable with being “out” and discussing the challenges they face as they age, such as loss, chronic illness [and] caregiving,” says Alayna Waldrum, housing legislative representative at LeadingAge, a D.C. based membership organization of consisting of 6000 not-for-profit organizations, 39 state partners and hundreds of businesses, consumer groups, foundations, and research partners serving aging individuals.
While the District topped the charts in a 2013 study with 10 percent of its adults identifying as LGBT, there are currently no housing facilities in the city dedicated to serve this population. Native Washingtonian Dr. Imani Woody plans to change that with the development of Mary’s House for Older Adults.
Named after Woody’s late mother, the home will feature six suites for LGBT seniors in Fort Dupont in Southeast. Very few like it exist in the country: There is Triangle Square in Los Angeles as well as communities in Minneapolis, Philadelphia and Chicago.
What will make Mary’s House unique for residents is its communal environment. Unlike apartments where you may never speak to your neighbors and only interact with your landlord when the rent is due, Mary’s House will have programming that brings residents together, says Woody, and they’ll never have to worry about diminishing parts of their lives. “You can be your whole self [whether you’re] a butch or a dom or a transgender person--you can talk about your girlfriend or boyfriend's party last night and not have to change the pronoun.”
The idea for Mary’s House came to Woody while in the process of caring for her ailing father. He’d suffered a stroke and she placed him in what she thought was a good nursing home.  While he was in fair condition entering the facility, he soon became incontinent, so she brought him back home.
“He was a minister, entrepreneur and he had property, but when he went to this nursing home they didn't know all the good things that he had done in the community--they knew nothing about him” she says. “For them, he was Room 223.”
If this happened to her father, a straight man, just imagine if he were gay or transgender, says Woody, who is lesbian. 
After her father passed away in 2010, she was left with his home that she could either sell, refurbish and rent out or do something more meaningful. She chose the latter.
As she began to research, she found that her suspicions about what happens to LGBT seniors were true.
“It’s a population that has fought very much to get out of the closet and now they're entering a period in their lives where they're potentially more vulnerable to discrimination,” says Aaron Tax, director of federal government relations at Services and Advocacy for GLBT Elders (SAGE), a national organization based in New York dedicated to advocating for inclusive housing policies.

In The Aging and Health Report: Disparities and Resilience among Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Older Adults, co-sponsored by SAGE, eighty-two percent of LGBT older adult participants reported being victimized at least once, and sixty-four percent report experiencing victimization at least three times in their lives. The most common type of victimization cited was verbal insults followed by threats of physical violence and being hassled by the police.
Five percent of those surveyed had been prevented from living in their desired neighborhood as a result of their actual or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity.
When searching for affordable housing, which is increasingly scarce for all people, many LGBT seniors are forced back into the closet as “they err on the side of being cautious and not being out”, says Tax.
In addition, he continues, this population is twice as likely to be single and three times less likely to have kids than their heterosexual counterparts, so they end up lacking relatives who can take them to doctors appointments, share holidays, and even perform simple household chores like changing a light bulb.
SAGE has launched a national, multi-year LGBT elder housing initiative to ensure that millions of LGBT older people can access welcoming LGBT housing in all its forms.
Woody is a part of this initiative and presented on a panel of the first-ever LGBT Elder Housing Summit in February “to bring folks out and make people aware of the discrimination that exists,” she says. After awareness comes action with projects like Mary’s House.
Last September, she launched an $800,000 funding campaign for the development and has since received individual and private donations with hopes of receiving funding from the District government. Mary’s House should open November 2016. 

Read more articles by Christina Sturdivant.

Christina Sturdivant is a native Washingtonian who's always watching and writing about the latest cultural, community and innovative trends in the city. She's interested in people and companies that create equitable opportunities for longtime residents and transplants alike.
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