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In Some Cities, Gays Face Greater Risk Of Becoming Homeless

A rainbow flag against a San Francisco roofline.
via Flickr
A rainbow flag against a San Francisco roofline.

Tim Oviatt was once a successful businessman. For 32 years, he owned an apparel store in San Francisco called All American Boy.

"If you wore my logo T-shirt, people knew you were gay all over the world," he says.

Now, Oviatt finds himself symbolizing something stark about the gay community. Having lost his business, his longtime partner and finally his home, Oviatt, who is 64, has mostly been sleeping in his car the past nine months.

He's not alone. A recent census of the homeless population in San Francisco found that 29 percent of them identify as gay. That is twice the share of the city's total population that is gay, lesbian or transgender.

"There's this stereotype of the gay community that we're all doing well and are affluent," says San Francisco Supervisor David Campos. "This really challenges that, the fact that we have a segment of our community that's struggling, even more so than the straight community."

It's typical for young gays, who have often fled hostile environments, to make up a large proportion of the homeless who are under 25 — perhaps as much as 40 percent in major cities such as Boston and Los Angeles.

But the generation of gays who came of age in the 1970s and 1980s — those who saw their friends decimated by AIDS — are now overrepresented among the homeless, as well.

"It's not just a San Francisco phenomenon," says Jerry Jones, executive director of the National Coalition for the Homeless. "LGBT [lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender] folk are disproportionately represented among the homeless."

Lack Of Family Support

"Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in," wrote the poet Robert Frost.

In that sense, many gays who are middle-aged or older are truly homeless.

Tom Oviatt, 64, a former apparel store owner in San Francisco, has mostly been sleeping in his car the past nine months.
Alan Greenblatt / NPR
Tom Oviatt, 64, a former apparel store owner in San Francisco, has mostly been sleeping in his car the past nine months.

"The fact that folks weren't able to legally marry and have those traditional ways of being able to set up retirement, those folks are particularly impacted," says Lisa Marie Alatorre, a human rights organizer with the Coalition on Homelessness in San Francisco.

As is the case today, gays who moved to large cities years ago might have cut off, or been cut off from, relations with their families. Most didn't start families of their own.

"Probably the bigger factor that protects you from losing your housing seems to be having adult children," says Margot Kushel, a professor of medicine at the University of California, San Francisco, who studies health issues among the homeless.

In addition to their diminished family lives, many older gays have lost their closest friends, due to the scourge of AIDS.

"When I was 30 years old, I threw a birthday party for myself," says Oviatt, who moved to San Francisco in 1972. "There were probably 30 people there. There's about four of them still alive."

Issue Gaining Attention

People like Oviatt who have lost work or housing face an additional hurdle: San Francisco is one of the most expensive cities in the country.

"We have a very strong, thriving economy," says Campos, the city supervisor. "With that comes a very significant increase in rents."

The desire to charge higher rents has led to a spike in evictions. The epicenters recently have been traditionally gay neighborhoods such as the Castro and Bernal Heights.

In April, Jonathan Klein, who like Oviatt had been a longtime business owner in the Castro, committed suicide when faced with eviction. His death, along with the most recent census, has helped bring attention to the problem of displaced gays.

"If there is a silver lining here, it is the hope that it will increase awareness and heighten the commitment not only of city government but the entire community to deal with this issue," Campos says.

Next week, San Francisco's Planning Commission will hold a hearing to decide whether to approve the opening of a shelter specifically dedicated to housing people who are LGBT.

Many — particularly those who are older or transgender — have been wary of going to existing shelters for fear of discrimination or abuse.

"About 50 percent of our shelter staff will identify as LGBT," says Marlon Mendieta, program director for Dolores Street Community Services, which will run the shelter. "It's not creating a room or a space where I'm going to segregate the LGBT community. The whole program is prepared."

But the new space will only have 24 beds. Getting it open has been a struggle that has gone on for more than two years.

How The City Responds

San Francisco's problem takes place against the backdrop of a city with an unusual number of top public officials who are gay or transgender.

"There's an eye on it," says Alatorre, the advocate for the homeless. "By and large, people recognize it's an issue and express sympathy, but we don't see the resources going to the programs that actually serve the need."

San Francisco has enjoyed some success in combating homelessness. The recent census found that the overall count is about where it was two years ago, but there are significantly fewer people who are chronically homeless — that is, who have been living on the streets for more than a year.

"San Francisco has made a tremendous amount of progress on chronic homelessness, which isn't always evident when you walk down the street," says Kushel, referring to the visibility of the homeless.

San Francisco Mayor Edwin M. Lee has run a number of programs designed to combat homelessness, says Bevan Dufty, his lead advisor on the issue, including winning approval from voters last November of a housing trust fund that will create more affordable units.

Brian Basinger, director of the AIDS Housing Alliance/SF (left), helped Tom Oviatt navigate his way through red tape to find temporary housing.
Alan Greenblatt / NPR
Brian Basinger, director of the AIDS Housing Alliance/SF (left), helped Tom Oviatt navigate his way through red tape to find temporary housing.

But advocates in the gay community complain that the bulk of the city's funding is geared toward serving families with children present. That may be understandable, but it offers little help to those who are gay — or senior or disabled — and childless.

"All the other adults are pushed into a corner and fighting over scraps," says Brian Basinger, director of AIDS Housing Alliance/SF.

Fortunate To Find A Home

The result is waiting lists for housing that can be years long. In that sense, Oviatt is lucky.

With Basinger's help, he was able to navigate his way through months of red tape and a number of bureaucratic false starts. On Monday, he moved out of his car and into a single room occupancy (SRO) hotel in the city's grungy Tenderloin neighborhood.

Oviatt has AIDS and has been losing weight, so having a small but clean place where he can prepare meals for himself is a lifesaver.

"I got food in the slow cooker so I'm going to be able to eat on my own again," he says. "It's the first night I've slept in a bed in five months. It's such a joy."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Alan Greenblatt has been covering politics and government in Washington and around the country for 20 years. He came to NPR as a digital reporter in 2010, writing about a wide range of topics, including elections, housing economics, natural disasters and same-sex marriage.
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