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Amid coronavirus outbreak, LGBT seniors self isolate

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Bill Longen relaxed with his two cats, Darla, 14, and Wheezer, 15, in his apartment in the Marcy Adelman and Jeanette Gurevitch Openhouse Community in this July 2019 photo. Photo: Rick Gerharter
Bill Longen relaxed with his two cats, Darla, 14, and Wheezer, 15, in his apartment in the Marcy Adelman and Jeanette Gurevitch Openhouse Community in this July 2019 photo. Photo: Rick Gerharter  

Even before San Francisco officials issued a stay-at-home order Monday, Bill Longen had decided to sequester himself in his apartment as much as possible due to the novel coronavirus outbreak. Longen, 73, a gay man and longtime survivor of HIV, started limiting his trips outside his home at the start of the month.

"I am keeping myself semi-sequestered. Knock on wood, I am doing OK so far," Longen told the Bay Area Reporter in a phone interview Tuesday. "I limited my ventures out of the apartment building over the last couple of weeks beginning March 1."

The longtime resident of the city's LGBT Castro district and former manager of the Castro Theatre, Longen last summer moved into a unit at the Marcy Adelman and Jeanette Gurevitch Community at 95 Laguna. It is part of the 119-residence LGBT-welcoming affordable senior housing project that Openhouse, a nonprofit provider of LGBT senior services in San Francisco, partnered on with affordable housing developer Mercy Housing.
With health officials early on recommending that people over the age of 60 and those with underlying health issues avoid going out in public as the first wave of coronavirus cases began in California last month, Longen took the advice to heart. He told the B.A.R. that many of his neighbors had done the same and were also sheltering in place inside their apartments.

"It's been OK. You always start to develop a little cabin fever after a few days in the apartment. I deal with it. I always find things to do," said Longen, who ventured out Tuesday afternoon to see his doctor after confirming it would be safe for him to do so but took a ride share there. "I am not going to take public transportation. It is a little bit too close to people at this point."

To date, none of the residents at the complex have tested positive for COVID-19, the respiratory illness caused by the coronavirus. Because the complex is comprised of independent senior apartments, the restrictions on visitors and all emergency rules imposed on long-term care settings, such as nursing homes or assisted living facilities, don't apply to Openhouse's residential buildings.

"We are doing everything we can to encourage folks to stay home, while doing everything we can to help people feel connected," Openhouse Executive Director Karyn Skultety, Ph.D., told the B.A.R. "It's such a hard experience for seniors who already feel 'distanced' and isolated from their community to be in this situation."

Due to the coronavirus outbreak, Openhouse has canceled all of its in-person programs and lunch get-togethers, and other LGBT nonprofit service providers have followed suit. In San Jose the Billy DeFrank LGBT Community Center has temporarily ended its senior lunch program, and the East Bay's Rainbow Community Center in Concord has suspended all of its in-person programming and services until April 7.

"We are also working on creative ways in which to connect with our older adult community members and ensure they have what they need and mitigate further social isolation during this time," wrote Kiku Johnson, the rainbow center's executive director, in an email Monday to clients and supporters of the facility.

At risk
LGBT seniors are particularly at risk of being isolated, which can cause depression and other health issues. Many live alone, have frayed relationships with their families, and have lost loved ones, partners, and friends to AIDS and other diseases as their social cohort has aged. It is why organizations like Openhouse were created in order to address the needs of LGBT seniors.

Despite having shut down most of its programming and sending its employees home last Friday to work remotely, Openhouse is continuing to reach out to every senior that has walked through its doors since last July and provided it with contact information. Skultety, who was also working from home this week, told the B.A.R. that every day 16 to 18 of the agency's staff are calling seniors to check in with them from a list of 100-plus people they were assigned.

"We will get to those folks at least once a week if able. It is complicated, we shifted staff in more administrative roles to do the calling," said Skultety, who held a video chat conference last Friday for the agency's clients and supporters to explain what steps it is taking for the next several weeks.

Any senior wishing to be added to the call list can do so by calling Openhouse's main number (415) 296-8995. The agency's staff is providing housing and service navigation with referrals to services, noted Skultety, and are providing case management to both community members and residents of its campus on Laguna Street by phone and in-person visits in urgent/emergent situations.

"The number one thing is people feeling very isolated and worried and anxious," Skultety said her staff has been hearing from the seniors they reach. "We know this is a population of people who already feel isolated. It is a heartbreaking time to add self distancing and isolation on top of it."

In an email District 2 Supervisor Catherine Stefani sent to her constituents this week, she noted anyone feeling anxious, stressed, depressed or isolated can call the San Francisco Mental Health Warm Line at (855) 845-7415, or chat with them online at www.mentalhealthsf.org/peer-run-warmline. She also reminded people they can call the San Francisco Suicide Prevention hotline at (415) 781-0500 for confidential emotional support or chat online with the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at https://suicidepreventionlifeline.org/chat/

"I want everyone to know that you are not alone and there is help out there. There is absolutely no shame in needing and seeking help with any of these issues," wrote Stefani. "Taking care of your mental health is just as important as taking care of your physical health during this time."

To keep busy while he remains at home Longen said he has been working on his film collection, rewatching some of the hundreds of movies in his DVD collection, and reading books. He continues to receive his weekly food delivery from Meals on Wheels and relies on a friend to help him with his shopping needs.

"We have to deal with it on a day-to-day basis and do what we can to protect ourselves," said Longen.

LGBT and civil rights activist Cleve Jones, 65, another longtime survivor of HIV, decided to relocate to Guerneville, the gay resort town in the Russian River region of Sonoma County out of an abundance of caution to protect his health. He canceled all of his upcoming speaking engagements, and after seeing his doctor in San Francisco last week, moved up to the North Bay for the foreseeable future.

"There are quite a few of us older LGBTQ folk up here," Jones told the B.A.R. by phone this week. "There aren't big crowds of people up here. I also have a garden here so I can grow food. It is easier for me to be outside in the sun and walking around."

He continues to work for UNITE HERE, the hotel, restaurant, and garment workers' labor union, whose members have been particularly hit hard by the shuttering of the businesses that employ them due to the outbreak. Many have either been laid off from work or seen their hours significantly reduced.

"We are being decimated by this thing. There have been so many layoffs in the hotel industry and airlines so our members are really, really suffering," said Jones. "Everyone in our union is engaged full-time and trying to mitigate the harm our members and their families are experiencing."

Having lived through the early days of the AIDS epidemic, and seeing both the LGBT community and San Francisco officials rally to respond as the federal government failed to do so, Jones said he remains optimistic the same will be true today.

"All this we take for granted, meal delivery programs, counseling and grief support. Our community built that," said Jones. "So when we look at all of our friends and neighbors facing unemployment or underemployment who are being quarantined, we have dealt with this before. And I have no doubt we will rise to the challenge; that is what we do."

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