for LGBT homeless
by Matthew S. Bajko
Tim Oviatt has been living in his Chrysler Sebring convertible since January, often parking it outside the home and bath products store where he works part-time.
The single, 64-year-old gay man had been renting a shared flat with two roommates in San Francisco's Potrero Hill neighborhood throughout 2012. But in December the landlord asked Oviatt and the other tenant to move out, as he wanted to live alone.
Lacking enough money to secure a new apartment, Oviatt has spent the last seven months largely in his vehicle as he tries to secure affordable housing in the city.
"It is a struggle," said Oviatt, who relocated to San Francisco in the 1970s from Michigan. "I had always lived relatively comfortably but one circumstance after another piled up."
The downturn in the economy and a rent hike dispute with his landlord led Oviatt in 2009 to close his Castro clothing store All American Boy after 26 years in business.
"No matter how much I slashed staff or reduced inventory, I couldn't make ends meet," said Oviatt.
It took him 12 months to find work, albeit it is not full-time.
"I was unemployed for a year. It was really difficult to make ends meet," he said.
Then his partner of 18 years, Roland Espinosa, died due to AIDS complications, and Oviatt had to put their house up for sale in 2011.
"I had to sell because of financial issues," said Oviatt, admitting that he "hurt myself too. I got bad advice and took equity out of the house when I shouldn't have."
Resolved to remain in the city he has called home for four decades, Oviatt turned to the AIDS Housing Alliance earlier this year for assistance.
"They've been a lifesaver. But even they can't get through the bureaucracy involved," said Oviatt. "Without them, I would be in my car all the time."
The nonprofit was able to land him a room in a single-room-occupancy hotel but it was "a pigsty," so Oviatt moved out. In May a studio with bathroom became available in the West Hotel in the Tenderloin that Oviatt decided to apply for through a rental assistance program.
But he has had to navigate through a byzantine system at both the city's housing authority and two affordable housing providers where paperwork is repeatedly lost and missteps delay the approval process. He is "quite confident," however, that he will be able to move into the unit by August 1.
(Photo: Jane Philomen Cleland)
"It is one thing after another. By the good graces of co-workers and friends, I can couch dive for a time. But I don't want to wear out my welcome," said Oviatt. "At least I am not sleeping literally on the sidewalk because I am sleeping in my vehicle."
While it has long been known that a large percentage of homeless youth in San Francisco are LGBT, new data is showing that alarming numbers of LGBT adults in the city are also struggling to find housing or are at risk of losing their homes.
In late June the biennial San Francisco Homeless Point-In-Time Count and Survey was released and, for the first time, included statistics on LGBT people. The 2013 report found that out of a total of 7,350 homeless people, more than one in four (29 percent) identified as lesbian, gay, bisexual or "other" for a total of 2,132.
Based on the report's findings and estimates that at least 94,234 LGBT people live in San Francisco, LGBT housing activists estimate that 2.3 percent are homeless. And they predict that LGBT city residents are 258 percent as likely to become homeless as the general population.
Brian Basinger, who founded the AIDS Housing Alliance and now oversees three additional homeless programs under the umbrella agency named the Q Foundation, hopes that the data on LGBT homeless people in the city will "finally" serve as a "wake-up call within the LGBT community and within the San Francisco leadership on the disparate needs" of LGBT residents and people living with HIV and AIDS for housing services.
"Those of us in the anti-displacement and homeless prevention world have been trying to highlight the mechanisms whereby the LGBT community especially becomes homeless and the need to do something about it," said Basinger. "These results, I think, really crystalize what we were talking about."
Asked about the report's findings, gay District 8 Supervisor Scott Wiener told the Bay Area Reporter that "it really underlines the need to create more affordable housing not just for youth but for others as well" in the city.
"I think it is a reminder that people in our community are homeless and at risk for becoming homeless and we have to make sure we are helping them to remain housed and getting housing for those who need it," said Wiener.
Two other reports released in recent weeks have demonstrated that LGBT seniors and older adults living with HIV or AIDS in San Francisco are particularly at risk of becoming homeless.
A study commissioned by the city's LGBT Aging Policy Task Force, which surveyed 616 LGBT city residents aged 60 to 92 years old, found that those respondents who live alone, have lower incomes, and are less educated "are at elevated risk for housing instability."
The study found that while 57 percent of older San Francisco residents own a home, just 41 percent of LGBT participants did. A majority, 54 percent, are renters compared to 41 percent of older adults in the city who rent.
And while 57 percent of adults in San Francisco are "very confident" they will remain housed, the study found that only 32 percent of the LGBT participants did.
"There has been a sense for a long time that LGBT people are at greater risk of homelessness," said out lesbian lead researcher Karen I. Fredriksen-Goldsen, Ph.D., a professor at the University of Washington and director of the Institute for Multigenerational Health who oversaw the study.
A report based on the responses from 116 people living with HIV aged 50 and older in the San Francisco area found that "a significant minority of participants" had "unstable or marginal housing." Those living in SRO hotels or who were homeless comprised nearly 15 percent of the sample.
Loren Meissner, 60, who is HIV-positive and conducted the research as part of his master's project at San Francisco State University, noted in the report that a majority of those surveyed rely on public assistance or public disability such as Social Security SSI (Supplemental Security Income) or SSD (Social Security Disability) to make ends meet.
"These income sources do not have an allowance which adequately matches the costs associated with living in expensive cost of living cities and nearby suburbs," wrote Meissner.
With the majority of people in the city living with AIDS and HIV now in their 50s, the bulk of which are gay men, their risk of becoming homeless will grow as they hit retirement age and their income levels drop, predicted Basinger.
"A tidal wave is coming," he said. "It is actually already hitting. We are completely unprepared for it."
Gay District 9 Supervisor David Campos, who did not respond to a request for comment for this story, has held ad-hoc meetings about the issue over the last year with both LGBT leaders and city staffers. And the mayor and board did allocate some specific funding in the new budget for fiscal year 2013-2014 to address LGBT youth homelessness.
But City Hall has yet to announce any initiatives designed to primarily focus on LGBT homeless issues similar to its creation of the LGBT Aging Policy Task Force.
"We do have some proposals around preventing homelessness in general for the board but they are not specific to LGBT people," said Wiener.
LGBT housing advocates are calling on both city officials and LGBT agencies to devote more attention and funding toward solving homelessness within the LGBT community. Up to now, they contend, neither the city nor LGBT nonprofits have done enough to address the issue.
"I think, basically, we need to think tank this and treat it as a crisis," queer housing activist Tommi Avicolli Mecca, who works for the Housing Rights Committee, told the Bay Area Reporter . "We have poured millions into gay marriage and look at where it's gotten us as a community. We need to do the same for those in our community in need. We can't count on the city to fund everything. We have to do it for ourselves, too. Like we did with AIDS."