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Spirit on Lake provides welcoming home for LGBT seniors

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Barbara Satin
GLBT Generations co-founder Barbara Satin was instrumental in getting the LGBT senior development Spirit on Lake off the ground.
MPR Photo/Jon Collins

After 35 years in his south Minneapolis house, Harvey Hertz pared down a lifetime of possessions last week. Among the items the 73-year-old brought with him to his new home were a poster signed by the cast of "Hairspray" the musical and a framed photo of Hertz marching in an early Minneapolis gay pride parade.  

Hertz and his cat, Marbles, are now residents of Spirit on Lake apartments in Minneapolis. It's the first housing development in Minnesota to serve primarily lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender seniors, a group that faces unique safety and health challenges as they age.  

"I thought I was going to have to move to a regular place for senior citizens, and it would have to be, 'How safe do I feel telling anybody about myself?'" Hertz said. "It's about time to have a place for older gay people to feel safe."

When he was growing up in Brooklyn, N.Y., there was so little discussion of gay people that he didn't even know it was possible to be gay. "There was no such thing as a gay person," he said. "I hated being gay for a long time."  

Things began to change slowly following the 1969 riots at New York City's Stonewall Inn, when gay patrons fought back against police harassment. The riots helped ignite a civil rights movement for gay and lesbian people.  

Harvey Hertz
Harvey Hertz, 73, displays a signed poster for Hairspray the musical and framed poster commemorating the Stonewall riots.
MPR Photo/Jon Collins

As the years passed, he stopped blaming himself and "finally had the courage to get angry at other people."  

In 1983, Hertz opened Minnesota's first gay bookstore, A Brother's Touch, in south Minneapolis. It wasn't easy to be "out" then, Hertz said. His store's windows were repeatedly broken and slurs were spray-painted on the walls.  

After a life of fighting back against bias, the last thing Hertz wanted was to feel pressured to go back in the closet as his ability to live alone declined. That's when he heard about Spirit on Lake.  

LGBT SENIORS CHALLENGED  

There are more than 2 million LGBT people older than 50 in the United States, according to a 2011 University of Washington study. Researchers expect that number to double by 2030.

That population surge brings with it some challenges. Studies show that LGBT seniors are poorer, unhealthier and have fewer people in their support networks than heterosexual seniors.  

Barbara Satin helped found a group called GLBT Generations after a transgender woman in Satin's church chose to revert to a masculine identity when she needed care following a stroke.  

"They fear that if they are out in a nursing home, that they're going to be discriminated against," Satin said. "Within the transgender community, there's a fear that they're going to be refused service, because in many cases they present a body that in outward appearance may appear feminine or masculine."  

Pride march
A photo of an early gay pride march in Minneapolis.
Image courtesy of Harvey Hertz

Satin said many older LGBT seniors hid their sexual preferences or gender identity for much of their lives due to the stigma.

"They grew up at a time when it was illegal, it was against the law, it was sinful," Satin said. "They have never really felt comfortable or secure being out in the public."

  Many LGBT seniors of that generation, Satin said, also don't have the traditional family support system. LGBT seniors are more likely to live without a partner who could take care of them. A 2010 report from the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force Policy Institute found that LGBT seniors were four times less likely to have children.

But even when there are children, problems can arise.

"Sometimes the children aren't comfortable with their dad or their mom's sexual orientation or gender identity," Satin said.

  At 54, Steven Brusewitz is one of the younger residents at Spirit on Lake. He said the camaraderie among the residents is one of the things that drew him to the building.

"I know most of the people that have moved in here because I've been out since 1976, so it's just very comforting, very home-feeling," Brusewitz said. "I can go knock on my neighbor's door and not worry about being yelled at — we've known each other for so long."

  There's no requirement that everyone in the building identify as LGBT, although management said about three-quarters of residents do. Asha Haji-Sufi moved from Hopkins mostly to be closer to her family in south Minneapolis. She spoke highly of her new neighbors, describing Spirit on Lake as a "very nice, quiet, very peaceful place to live."

SPIRIT ON LAKE ALMOST DIDN'T HAPPEN

  The apartment complex was originally conceived of as a mixed-income cooperative almost a decade ago by a group that included members of the former Spirit of the Lakes Church.

But the plan to create a co-op was derailed in its final stages when the housing market collapsed, leaving many homeowners without the equity to buy.  

Barbara Satin said planners had to step back and reassess their priorities.   "We decided to shift our focus to affordable rentals," Satin said. "A lot of GLBT seniors wanted to become part of the cooperative but didn"t have the financial resources -- but they still were looking for a community where they could be safe and secure and live out their remaining years."

In 2011, the non-profit housing developer PRG, which had been included in Spirit on Lake from the beginning, entered into a partnership with Everwood Development to help create affordable rentals targeted at LGBT seniors, said PRG's Kathy Wetzel-Mastel.  

After dealing with the financial crisis, developers still needed to cope with a badly polluted lot that raised the cost of each unit. It was only last fall that the developers were able to fully fund the project and start construction.  

Spirit on Lake cost $9.8 million to build. It includes 46 units, all of which management says are now reserved. And it's restricted to those with lower incomes -- a single occupant can't earn more than $28,850 to qualify for the housing. Rents start at $720 a month for a one-bedroom apartment.  

Because the church no longer needs the first-floor space at Spirit on Lake, Hertz, who closed his bookstore a decade ago, will be reunited with the subject of much of his life's work. The oldest LGBT library in the upper Midwest, the Quatrefoil Library, will open on the ground floor of Spirit on Lake in November.

From his sunny living room, Hertz summed up his feelings about his new home: "This is my reward."