Print Email Share

Gay Seniors Lack Social Safety Net

Nicole C. Brambila - The Desert Sun

Monday, July 06, 2009

If Phillip Huebner stretched out his legs just right, he could get in a fitful snooze in his cramped Ford pickup.

It wasn't that much fun, said the 64-year-old Desert Hot Springs resident who called his pickup home when he became homeless this year.

It would have been terrible if it had been a long-term thing.

Huebner, who is disabled, was evicted from his apartment for making more money than laws governing federal disability allow and temporarily lost his Social Security benefits.

In January and February, he slept in his truck and struggled to live off $80 a week.

Huebner doesn't have family in the valley or a partner.

More than half of all American seniors rely on a Social Security check for retirement. But unlike their straight counterparts, gays and lesbians face unique challenges: gay seniors are more likely to be poor, live alone and have weaker support systems.

The gay senior is in a unique situation in that they grew up in a time period where it was illegal to be gay, said Harvey Stern, director of the Golden Rainbow Senior Center in Palm Springs. It was considered a mental illness. That internalized homophobia does not go away.

If you're poor and you're frail and you live alone then you're in a vulnerable situation and that's when people go back into the closet.

Advocates worried the social safety net was not doing what it could to help gay seniors, and in 2006 state legislators enacted AB 2920, which added sexual orientation to the list of factors the Department of Aging considers when assessing the need for state services.

Given our current cohort of gay seniors that are out there, they're pretty closeted, said Ed Walsh, director of the Riverside County Office on Aging. A lot of them have survived in life by keeping a low profile. That's not going to help now.

A third of the respondents in a 2007 survey by the Riverside County Office on Aging reported being fearful of identifying themselves as gay and lesbian.

More than 60 percent of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender seniors said they preferred gay or LGBT friendly service providers.

Bill Sugg is among them.

The 68-year-old Rancho Mirage resident prefers going to the Golden Rainbow Senior Center's weekly food distribution in Palm Springs because the women can come on kind of strong, at other centers, he said.

Gay issues are particularly important in the Palm Springs area, which boasts, per capita, one of the largest gay populations in the United States.

LGBT organizations such as the Golden Rainbow Senior Center and the Desert Pride Center offer programs specifically geared to address gay and lesbian issues and needs.

Living in fear

The golden years can be tricky on a fixed income. But gay seniors face many unseen obstacles. They are twice as likely to live alone and 10 times less likely to have a caretaker if they get ill.

Take Betty Weiss.

At 68, she doesn't have a partner or family nearby.

I thought I was coming into retirement being able to enjoy life. I just saw it vanish, the Thousand Palms resident said.

I'm really scared. I'm not 70 yet and I could live another 20 years. Every time something happens, I'm alone.

When I get sick, that's when I wish that I had a partner. I live in fear when I get sick.

Since she retired from social work in 1993, she has had a stroke and two spinal surgeries. Weiss estimates she has spent roughly $30,000 hiring homebound care.

Nationally, an estimated 2.8 million Americans age 65 years and older are gay and lesbian. Officials do not have a population estimate for gay seniors in the county.

Riverside County, however, has the third highest concentration of senior same-sex couples nationwide, according to an estimate by the Urban Institute, a Washington, D.C., nonprofit organization that conducts research on social and economic issues.

Roughly 3.6 million elders, or about 10 percent, live below the poverty level. Gays across all age groups experience higher poverty rates than their straight counterparts.

The inequity is particularly pronounced, though, among lesbians 65 years and older who are twice as likely to be poor than straight women, according to a March study by the Williams Institute.

Advocates blame the lack of federal recognition for much of the financial inequity because same-sex couples cannot claim the more than 1,138 federal benefits afforded opposite-sex couples such as survivor benefits and Social Security.

Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender seniors lose an estimated $124 million annually in inaccessible federal benefits, according to the Policy Institute of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force Foundation.

With the graying of America, advocates are concerned that problems with the safety net for gay seniors will only become exacerbated.

The number of seniors in the country is growing really dramatically, said Michael Adams, executive director of New York's Service & Advocacy for GLBT Elders, or SAGE, the nation's largest center geared to meet the needs of gays and lesbians.

The LGBT community does not have a tradition of taking care of its elderly and we need to create that tradition, fast.

Additional Facts Living in poverty

Same-sex couples 65 years and older are more likely to be poor than their opposite-sex married peers. The national average for opposite-sex couples is 4.6 percent 4.9 percent of male couples are poor 9.1 of female couples are poor

The Williams Institute

LGBT resources

More than 60 percent of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender seniors said they preferred gay or LGBT friendly service providers, according to a 2007 survey by the Riverside County Office on Aging. Here are some of the resources available to the LGBT community. Golden Rainbow Senior Center- 700 E. Tahquitz Canyon Way, Palm Springs, (760) 416-7790. Desert Pride Center - 611 S. Palm Canyon Drive, Palm Springs, (760) 327-2313. Desert AIDS Project - 1695 N. Sunrise Way, Palm Springs, (760) 969-5750