Omicron leads to changes at agencies serving LGBTQ elders

  • by John Ferrannini, Assistant Editor
  • Wednesday February 16, 2022
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Openhouse and On Lok staff, clockwise from lower left, are helping LGBTQ seniors navigate the COVID pandemic and include Ephraim Getahun, director of strategic partnerships at Openhouse; Gessika Krieger, program manager of day services at Openhouse + On Lok; John Blazek, On Lok executive director of day services; and Kathleen Sullivan, Openhouse executive director. Photo: Christopher Robledo
Openhouse and On Lok staff, clockwise from lower left, are helping LGBTQ seniors navigate the COVID pandemic and include Ephraim Getahun, director of strategic partnerships at Openhouse; Gessika Krieger, program manager of day services at Openhouse + On Lok; John Blazek, On Lok executive director of day services; and Kathleen Sullivan, Openhouse executive director. Photo: Christopher Robledo

The Omicron variant of COVID-19 was certainly not what anyone wanted — especially for LGBTQ seniors and the agencies serving them, beleaguered after two years of constant adjustment to the pandemic's challenges.

A year ago, when the Bay Area Reporter published a series of articles on various issues of import to LGBTQ seniors — including the loneliness that comes with social distancing, getting needed services to the vulnerable, and housing, the nation was optimistic that the roll-out of vaccines would bring a return to living like it's 2019. Now, policymakers are playing catch-up as new variants emerge the world over that are more likely to cause breakthrough infections.

The more laissez-faire approach that the federal government is taking to the pandemic in the post-vaccine world — as well as the record number of cases caused by Omicron that started in late November and continues disrupting the workforce nationwide — is leaving local nonprofits and agencies to figure out for themselves how to respond and stay as safe as possible.

Kathleen Sullivan, Ph.D., a lesbian who is the executive director of the LGBTQ senior housing and community services agency Openhouse, told the B.A.R. that "we haven't had — fortunately — too many" cases among staff.

"We have really stringent guidelines in the office, and Safer Together provides us with free testing on-site, on-demand for staff," Sullivan said.

Unfortunately, the new Openhouse + On Lok Community Day Services center that the B.A.R. reported on late last year has had to pivot, for now, to a virtual space.

"We do home-based programming, including daily calls to our community members, art at home projects, meals delivered, and connection to online programs through Zoom," Sullivan wrote in a February 11 email. "Our in-person programming will commence again on March 4. Openhouse programming is via Zoom, in-person, and we continue to call our community members."

Sullivan's predecessor, Karyn Skultety, Ph.D., a bisexual woman, told the B.A.R. that during the darkest days of the COVID-19 pandemic Openhouse started making hundreds of support calls to LGBTQ seniors to make sure their needs were being met and so they'd know someone was looking out for them. In early 2021, Openhouse was making 300-500 such calls weekly.

Sullivan said that the wellness calls have picked up due to Omicron, and that Openhouse is making "probably around 400-500" presently.

"Some of these folks we were just reconnecting with," Sullivan said. "When COVID-19 came on strong, we started doing massive amounts of phone calls to our community members. When things felt better and started to open up a little bit, it started to wane. But when Omicron came on, we thought we should start connecting again over the phone. A lot of folks don't want us to call them, but most do.

"If some people need a weekly call, we are going to be doing that for the next couple of weeks, if not longer," Sullivan added.

Omicron started to affect Openhouse services in early December, when "the numbers were going up, just before the holiday break, when we closed our office from the [December] 24 to [January] 3," she said.

"We had protocols put in place for the staff and really started to slow down in-person care navigation, moving housing navigation to Zoom," Sullivan added.

The B.A.R. asked Sullivan if the residents of the LGBTQ-welcoming senior apartments 55 and 95 Laguna Street, served by Openhouse, are experiencing COVID fatigue.

"There is sort of a community at 55 and 95 Laguna and to be honest I think older adults — when they live in community — seem to be incredibly resilient," Sullivan said. "People are really hoping that — everything we've been reading is that this is going to be shorter-lived, for instance, than the Delta variant — and I get really positive, so I always have to temper my positivism, but the experts are saying in February it will have run its course."

Donna Personna, a 75-year-old transgender woman who lives at 95 Laguna Street, said that the spread of Omicron increased her anxieties already tested by the pandemic.

"I was at a fever pitch of being terrified," Personna said in a recent phone interview, adding she sought psychiatric help.

"I'm very outgoing. I'm very, very social by nature, and I'm a drag queen performer, an activist, and now I'll say that's the most important thing for me is my activism in the LGBT community," Personna said. "It's been getting worse for me. I get all the feels, and so many of them are not happy ones. I'm sad and scared."

Sullivan said that taking care of people's mental health remains a difficult challenge. She pointed to a 2021 survey of LGBTQ older adults funded by the San Francisco Department of Disability and Aging Services, Horizons Foundation, and the Bob Ross Foundation that found "during the pandemic both the severity of depression and the number of older adults self-reporting depression increased significantly."

"During COVID, the percent of older adults with self-reported symptoms of depression increased to 13.5%, almost three times more than pre-COVID," the survey found. "[People of color] respondents and respondents with a disability had the highest percentages of people with possible depression, both during and prior to COVID and the stay-at-home mandate. More than one in four [trans and gender-nonconforming] respondents and respondents who live alone may have had depression during COVID. Nearly 8% of respondents said they had seriously thought about committing suicide in the past 12 months."

As the B.A.R. reported last August, the survey was based on responses from 500 LGBTQs over 50 years old. It also found that "people who live alone report higher levels of loneliness during COVID-19 than people who do not live alone."

"During COVID, nearly 65% of older adults reported they felt lonelier than before the pandemic began in March 2020. Over 80% said they felt isolated from others, with almost 40% said they often felt isolated. Notably, 20% of older adults scored the highest score possible on the Loneliness Scale, suggesting high degrees of loneliness," the survey found. "During the pandemic 11% of older adults reported they had three or more days with no contact with another person, compared to less than 4% before the pandemic."

Sullivan addressed the isolation-related pain older people are going through.

"People are tired," Sullivan said. "There's definitely a fatigue that comes along with not being able to be around large groups of people, and when I say they're resilient, I think they have a great perspective on this and they give me hope for the future. ... People are going remarkably well, given the difficulty of the circumstance."

Donna Personna, a transgender activist and drag performer, stood in the outside courtyard of Openhouse's 95 Laguna Street senior housing complex earlier this month. Photo: Christopher Robledo  

Safest at home
Personna said that she feels safest in her apartment.

"I conceive of myself as a very strong human being," she said. "I have confidence. I believe in myself, and all of that has been challenging for me, and the latest variant has made it even worse for me."

Nonetheless, Personna is proud of herself for continuing her drag career over Zoom. Personna said she didn't start performing until age 59, and is busier now than before, "if that's imaginable."

Personna said that she planned a trip to Ann Arbor, Michigan to speak before students February 15. The address had to be delayed from January due to Omicron, she said.

"I'm terrified," Personna said a couple of weeks before the scheduled trip, but nevertheless "I enjoy my creativity and passion."

"I'm just learning about myself that my performing is an act of activism, too," she added. "You can start drag at 59 and you can go to the tippy top. ... Every song I lip sync to, I have a message I want to get to the viewers."

Personna moved into 95 Laguna just before the beginning of the pandemic lockdown.

"Before the pandemic started, we had community events, coffee hours," Personna said. "Those things, I believe, were instituted so we could get to know one another and have things to do without leaving the community. At the time COVID-19 hit, all those things were changed."

Robert "Buzz" Taylor, a 77-year-old gay man, had similar recollections. He, too, moved into 95 Laguna just before the lockdown, when COVID had "started, but nobody knew what it was."

"The place was a very different place before that year," Taylor said. "We had all these lunches, coffee, a community room. There was a lot of interaction — there was a lot of community."

Taylor said that "as COVID progressed ... people started becoming frightened and became aloof. So the community that had been there took a big blow, and people started spending time in their apartments by themselves. That's still true — people aren't social with their neighbors."

Nevertheless, Taylor and a group of friends "who've had all our shots and done what we're supposed to do and haven't come down with it," have gotten the opportunity to become closer in recent months.

After Taylor had what he said was a "serious health issue" that required surgery, these friends "came to visit with me after surgery and they did my dishes."

Taylor said he's "thankful" for his friends, and also for 95 Laguna. His apartment is larger than his prior one in a three-story walk-up in Hayes Valley.

"I would be a prisoner of my apartment right now," he said, had he continued living there.

"There's more support here and there's more mooring of all your life here," he added.

Openhouse, according to its most recent publicly-available IRS form 990, had total expenses of $2.6 million in Fiscal Year 2019-2020. That year the organization took in $4.3 million.

On Lok
Last year On Lok, which runs an eponymous senior center at 30th and Dolores streets in San Francisco, told the B.A.R. about its meal delivery program. In January 2021, On Lok Mission Nutrition served an average of two meals a day to 348 people.

On Lok PACE also runs a health care plan for seniors who need support but live independently.

According to Sandra Rivas, the assistant director of day services operations for On Lok, only the organization's 30th Street center opened in-person during 2021. Omicron forced services to move online or to home delivery or take-out for meals.

"On Lok began offering some activities at the On Lok 30th Street Senior Center in-person in 2021, with safety protocols in place," Rivas stated via email. "These activities have been shifted virtually due to Omicron."

Rivas stated that meal delivery and pick-up are still available.

"On Lok continues to deliver meals, despite Omicron. Meal pick-up is still available," Rivas stated via email. "This is the only in-person activity at On Lok 30th Street Center at this time. Everything else is being offered virtually. To-go meals and essential social services appointments are the only in-person activity."

Rivas stated that in 2021, some 271,650 meals were delivered or picked up.

Nicole Torres, the vice president of On Lok PACE, stated that PACE has adopted a hybrid model of home-based and center-based health services.

"We have been providing a combination of both center and home-based services to continue to serve and respond to their needs during unpredictable times," Torres stated via email. "Our balance of center and home-based services has allowed us to serve our participants well despite the highs and lows of the pandemic."

Dr. Ben Lui, On Lok's chief medical informatics officer, said that these services include COVID-19 vaccination booster shots.

"On Lok has been providing our On Lok PACE participants with COVID booster shots since they were approved by the FDA and CDC last fall, thus providing our participants with additional protection against the Omicron variant," Lui stated via email, referring to the federal Food and Drug Administration and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "We have enhanced our PPE protocol by recommending N95 use for all direct care staff."

According to the organization's most recent IRS form 990, On Lok had $18.3 million in total expenses in Fiscal Year 2019-2020. That year the organization took in $14.9 million.

Vince Crisostomo is director of aging services at the San Francisco AIDS Foundation. Photo: Courtesy SF Pride  

Vince Crisostomo, a queer man who is the director of aging services with the San Francisco AIDS Foundation and is the program manager of its Elizabeth Taylor 50-Plus Network, discussed last year how SFAF was advocating for more housing subsidies in San Francisco for 300 households in Fiscal Year 2021-2022.

Gay District 8 Supervisor Rafael Mandelman fought for the request to be included in the city's budget. It included 300 housing subsidies, at $10,000 each, at a cost of $3 million.

"We were successful in that advocacy," Crisostomo, 60, said, adding that, "We were actually able to connect a few of our 50-Plus members who needed support coming out from COVID, who'd fallen behind."

"That was helpful," Crisostomo said. "We were very happy to help get those burdens eliminated. A lot of talk about housing is really depressing, but we were able to get at least three long-term [HIV] survivors housing subsidies, which I'm really happy for. I'm glad we were able to find some support for them."

Crisostomo said that Bill Hirsh, the executive director of the AIDS Legal Referral Panel, had been instrumental in pushing for the 2021 subsidies.

Hirsh, a gay man, told the B.A.R. that "this is one strategy to address the housing crisis."

"ALRP and other advocates have been successful in advocating for housing subsidies for people living with HIV and others (seniors, persons living with disabilities) for several years," Hirsh stated via email. "The subsidies were intended to be deep and ongoing and flexible. Many of the folks we work with will not see their incomes rise, so they will need the subsidy moving forward.

"The subsidies were intended to both prevent people from becoming homeless as well as take people out of becoming homeless," he added. "The number of folks served has been based on an average of about $10K per year per client, so if we got $3 million we would be able to serve about 300 folks."

Hirsh stated that the amount included $1 million for Fiscal Year 2020-2021 and $750,000 for Fiscal Year 2021-2022.

"The previous provider of the HIV-specific subsidies will no longer be contracting with the city so the city is putting all of that money out to bid and hopes to get a new contractor in place to provide these subsidies," Hirsh stated. "Historically, the city is reluctant to use its general fund dollars to pay for ongoing subsidies. I believe we have had some success with advocating for these subsidies to be ongoing, but they are still part of the annual city budget process."

Mandelman's office did not return a request for comment for this story.

Generations Project
Wes Enos, 35, who is based in New York City, achieved his goal of relaunching the Generations Project, which seeks to connect LGBTQ people intergenerationally.

"Things went pretty well, all things considered," Enos said, regarding 2021. "We had a mix of virtual programming that catered to people interested in being part of virtual programs, and we created a hybrid model of storytelling events."

Generations Project was able to get back in-person (Enos had told the B.A.R. in early 2021 about virtual events), which Enos said was the most meaningful part of the year.

"It's been really cool to finally meet people we've been working with virtually," Enos said.

The agency's intergenerational writing party is still virtual, and so are its storytelling workshops. But its live storytelling events are in person, said Enos.

"We have two programs we offer, [including] less pressure and more fun activities that are less of a commitment," he said.

The live storytelling comes out of four-to-five people who workshop ideas.

All the in-person events have been in New York City, including at the New York City AIDS Memorial, the Eagle in Chelsea, and at Henrietta Hudson, a queer restaurant in the West Village that had a queer Italian heritage event.

Enos said he hopes that these events will come back after Omicron "sooner rather than later."

He also stressed that people from all over the country can sign up for virtual events on the Generations Project's website.

This article was written with the support of a journalism fellowship from the Gerontological Society of America, The Journalists Network on Generations and the Silver Century Foundation.

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