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Three residents of Chicago's first LGBT senior center tell their stories

There are few places in the country like Boystown's new Town Hall Apartments, which serves one of the city's most overlooked and vulnerable populations.



When 61-year-old Pat Cummings recently moved to the new Town Hall Apartments—Chicago's first LGBT-friendly affordable senior housing facility—she found solace in more than the cheap rent. Cummings has returned to Boystown, where she first lived when she came to Chicago more than three decades ago.

"I come from a family that [subsidized] affordable housing doesn't exist in; they're very Republican in how they look at things, and they think that is a handout," says Cummings, who operates a pet-care business. "Instead of earning a lot of money, I put time into giving to other organizations and other people."

If not for Town Hall, Cummings and the other inaugural residents of the two-month-old facility likely could no longer bear the expense of the queer-friendly neighborhood, notes Modesto Tico Valle, CEO of Center on Halsted. "A lot of LGBT people who lived in Lakeview and are aging, who probably could not afford to stay here, now get to stay in their neighborhood where they've been out and proud for so many years," Valle says.

Town Hall joins just a handful of LGBT-friendly affordable senior housing facilities in the United States. While the one in Los Angeles dates back to 2007, facilities in Minneapolis and Philadelphia have opened within the past year. Even with these recent developments, the demand for such housing exceeds the supply—and will only continue to grow.

Nationally, the population of elderly gay, lesbian and bisexual people will double from about 1.5 million in 2010 to three million by 2030, according to the LGBT group Services and Advocacy for GLBT Elders. Older LGBT adults are poorer and less financially secure than American elders generally, SAGE finds. In Chicago, there are about 40,000 LGBT persons over the age of 55, a fifth of them living in poverty, according to a 2005 report that the antipoverty organization (and Center on Halsted partner) Heartland Alliance commissioned. In a study released earlier this year by the Equal Rights Center, almost half of same-sex couples looking for senior housing encountered discrimination.

"The LGBT senior population in particular is an extremely vulnerable population," Heartland executive director Michael Goldberg says. "Social isolation and not having that family network they can rely on is definitely an acute problem within the LGBT senior community."

During Town Hall's design phase, the Center on Halsted incorporated the input of seniors, who stressed, for instance, the importance of gathering spaces, Valle says. "Our whole mission is to build community and eliminate isolation so that seniors don't have to age alone anymore, especially LGBT seniors who may not have families or extended family."

If potential Town Hall applicants met the requirements—minimum age of 55, income no greater than $30,460, and passing credit and criminal checks—they then could apply on a first-come, first-served basis. (The Fair Housing Act prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation, so Town Hall is LGBT friendly, not LGBT exclusive.) About 440 people applied for the six-floor building's 79 units: 49 one-bedroom apartments, each 610 square feet, and 30 studios, each 474 square feet.

"The response has been overwhelming," says Kandyse McCoy Cunningham, Heartland's director of property management. Typically for its housing developments, she says, Heartland would have to make a few outreach attempts to advertise the facility. Town Hall needed just one.

The $23.7 million building is currently fully leased, with 84 residents (the one-bedroom units house five couples). The rent for each unit, which is subsidized by the Chicago Housing Authority, equals 30 percent of a resident's income.

"Some of the residents that I know have lived in poverty for so long," Valle says. "Instead of thinking of planning for the end of their lives, they're planning for new beginnings."

Three of Town Hall's residents invited us over to share their stories, from coming out to moving into their new homes.

"This does my confidence wonders, this place," Skye says. "There are other people like me." - ANDREA BAUER
  • Andrea Bauer
  • "This does my confidence wonders, this place," Skye says. "There are other people like me."

Eva Skye, 62

People ask me what I am. For a while I went with transgender. Now I'm going with punk queer. I'm fine with third gender. I'm not a man. I'm not a woman. I identify with female. I'm Eva Skye. I'm on hormones, and that's as far as I'm OK with. No [mimes scissors snipping]. I'm fine. I'm 62. I'm good.

I was born and raised in Chicago. My mom was from Russia, my dad was from Poland. My parents met in Berlin after the war. They were war refugees. They came here seeking the American dream. They did whatever they could—you know, factory work. They worked all the time.

I felt I was female from early on, like seventh or eighth grade. I started looking at how women dressed.

I went to Saint Mark's Catholic School. I'm terrified of nuns. They weren't the nicest, 'cause I was always questioning. I challenged everything. They'd get the ruler out and rap your knuckles or your wrist. I went to high school for a little bit, and I took a correspondence course to get my high school diploma. I was just a common laborer, odds-and-ends jobs, a factory worker, a roofer's assistant—menial work.

I got into drugs and drinking 'cause I knew I was mixed up. And then I stopped doing that. I've been sober for a long time now. Even when I went to AA meetings—there'd be a men's AA meeting and a women's, and I wanted to be in the women's AA meeting. There was no one to talk to.

I was in denial. And then by the time I figured it all out, I thought, It's too late to do anything about it. I had girlfriends, but it wasn't right. And I'm still into women, but my part is different now. I don't have to be the man part no more.

I started having seizures, and then the neurologist told me my working days were over. This was when [Stroger] Hospital was still Cook County Hospital. I went on disability.

And then one day in 2008, I said, "It's time. I gotta go." I went to the Center on Halsted, and I wound up getting a therapist. Pandora's box opened up. I was like a kid in the candy store. I started going to Howard Brown for my medical needs and I started doing hormones around Thanksgiving of '09, and I haven't looked back.

My family—we were estranged even before all that happened, so they don't even know. They probably wouldn't even care. My family is the rainbow community. My life is now.

I lived in an SRO in Uptown, and coming from there to here, this is like a palace. The SRO was small, cramped, and it's tricky to live in an SRO for anyone, but more so for me being queer. I got a lotta looks. I lived there for over four years. I've had more people here in two weeks than I did there at all.

At an SRO, it's better if you don't know your neighbors because if you know someone then they'll start knocking on your door and hitting you up for food or money. Here I know people. If someone knocks on my door, they're probably asking for a cup of sugar 'cause they're baking something—you know, like neighbors are supposed to be. I don't go up to the door and say "Go away."

They called me on my birthday, August 8, to tell me I got approved for Town Hall, so that was a heck of a birthday gift. Pinch me.

Here I'm right by the Center. It's great. The shower has a seat I can pull out. It's great for shaving legs. I don't have to do all those yoga moves like I had to before. And Boystown is the most Eva-friendly neighborhood there is.

I'm gonna start dating, now that I'm settled proper. This does my confidence wonders, this place. I can bring someone over to have tea. We can listen to music. Got a glorious view. Looks beautiful at night. I hope I'll fall in love with someone who's understanding. There are other people like me.

"I can rest easy instead of worrying about how I'm going to come up with the next rent," Cummings says. - ANDREA BAUER
  • Andrea Bauer
  • "I can rest easy instead of worrying about how I'm going to come up with the next rent," Cummings says.

Pat Cummings, 61

My brother John had been in the army in Vietnam. He came back, and he showed me a picture of this young man who was gorgeous, and he said, "This is my boyfriend. I'm homosexual." I said, "It's about time you knew that." He said, "How did you know?" And I said, "'Cause it takes one to know one." I was 15 years old.

I was eight years old when I got caught French-kissing one of my little friends behind the couch.

I was born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. I come from a nice upper-middle-class family. There's nine of us children. Being staunch Catholics, my parents just freaked with the fact that they had two, a gay man and a lesbian, in their family.

I spent five years in the navy, from '71 to '76. They were throwing my girlfriend out for being gay. I went to the commanding officer, and I said that I was gay. He told me I was the best petty officer that he had and he didn't care whether I was gay. So I had to go to Congress and have myself thrown out. This was in San Diego.

I followed my lover to Mobile, Alabama, and I went to the University of South Alabama. We broke up in the meantime. I moved to Chicago when I graduated from college. I had just turned 29. My brother John had come down to Chicago in the 70s. My brother was into the leather community. I'm a partyer. He was much more of a wild partyer.

In the 80s I was working for the Social Security Administration. In 1985, my first friend started getting sick. His name was Russian Eddie. It was AIDS. I began to help him in making his transition, getting him ready to go on to the next journey, whatever is after this. He died in '87. My next best friend in '88. By 1989, I had known 300 people who had died of AIDS and a lot more who were infected. And I couldn't figure out why I was learning the dance with death and why gay men were comfortable with me being the only one that was at their bedsides.

And then I understood why I had learned the dance. From the end of December of '88 until April of 1989, I was at my brother John's bedside 12 to 14 hours a day. My brother was born on April 20 in '45, so he would've been 44 years old had he lived, but he died on my birthday instead.

When my brother was dying, my mother asked me why I was at my brother's bedside and giving up so much of my life, and I said, "You told me I am my brother's keeper." She said, "Well, this is not what I meant by it." And I said, "But Mother, this is where he needs it."

Now there are only about two or three gay men [I know] that are from that period of time that watched everything.

When my brother died, I bought a camera, and I started doing photography for journalism, and from there I started doing some politicians' photography for their campaigns.

In 1993, my mother called me and she said, "I have to apologize to you. I found out that my best friends, the people that cared the most about me, were gays and lesbians." My mother had retired and moved down to Florida. She was in her 80s. It was really amazing to watch her make that change in her life and to become cognizant of the fact that the church had lied to her about gays and lesbians and about her own children.

About eight years ago, I started pet care—I walk them, I feed them. I was in Uptown. I was paying about 100 percent of what I was earning towards rent and upkeep. I wasn't putting money away. In Uptown, rent was $850 a month. It is significantly less here. I can rest easy instead of worrying about how I'm going to come up with the next rent, how I'm going to buy food for myself. I'm still working at my pet-care business. I don't ever foresee myself stopping working.

"It's a better situation for me to be in Town Hall," Halvorsen says, "instead of being in an apartment building where they're not gonna be concerned about me." - ANDREA BAUER
  • Andrea Bauer
  • "It's a better situation for me to be in Town Hall," Halvorsen says, "instead of being in an apartment building where they're not gonna be concerned about me."

Christian Halvorsen, 62

I was born in Staten Island, New York. I was in high school in Manhattan, in the Village, when Stonewall happened. I don't remember it. I don't even think I remember hearing about it. A 17-year-old boy—did I read newspapers? No. The first time anybody told me about Stonewall was years later.

I graduated from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, with a degree in hotel administration. I didn't come out until I was 27. I was living here in Chicago. It was [a friend's] 21st birthday. I was a restaurant manager, and he was a waiter. He was having a party at the Bistro, which was a gay club that was downtown, and it was 75-cent drink night. I finally said, "Well, it's time." And I went to the party and I walked into that room in the Bistro and I knew: "What have I been putting off for so long?" Men all over the place.

I was at home. I didn't feel shame. I didn't feel anything other than comfort. It was a beautiful club, too. Oh, my God. The main bar had a chandelier. There'd be all sweaty bodies.

Life was very good, and I was very promiscuous. In 1978 we went to bed and did everything you could possibly do. We would take our $20 and we'd go to the bars, and we'd get shit-faced. Or we'd do some drug on Friday that would last us until Sunday.

There was a lot of being arrested by the police because they would come in and check IDs, and if one person didn't have ID, then everybody was arrested, 'cause it was a "bawdy house." Everybody just carried ID. Did we get arrested? I didn't, personally. Did people get hassled? Yes.

I was 27. I'm sitting with my mother. We were watching Cabaret the movie—which, the homosexual overtones are all over the place—and I said, "Well, this has gotta be the time." I says, "Mom, I'm gay." She says, "Well, I've been waiting for you to tell me that. I've always thought you were."

I was working for Magic Pan restaurants, and I had a manager who was a little homophobic, but that happened in those days. They wanted to transfer me to Louisville, Kentucky, because I was gay. I said, "I don't wanna go to Louisville, Kentucky. I've just come out." They said, "Well, I don't know what managers are gonna work with you." But two managers did decide that they would work with me.

And then AIDS hit. I'm not HIV positive, so I've come this long—you know, we lost a generation. And that's about the time I moved to Philadelphia, to move closer to family. I lived in Philadelphia for 25 years.

I'm one of those people who have not had significant others. I don't think relationships necessarily last. They haven't lasted with me. Six months was the longest. We never thought that marriage was gonna be possible. We didn't think adoption was gonna be possible. Two guys sitting in a restaurant could never hold hands. That has all changed.

I spent over 37 years in the restaurant business. When it came time to retire, I wanted to come to Chicago. I had no friends or family here. But in Chicago, there's a sense of community. I've been coming to the Center on Halsted four days a week. We do movies, we do outings. It's better than sitting at home.

I came back here three and a half years ago. I had my foot then. I lost my foot three years ago due to diabetes. I had first lost a number four toe, which is the second one in from the pinkie toe. I applied for disability. I haven't worked since '08. I have a below-the-knee. The prosthetic is pretty good. I have neuropathy, and it bothers me. I still feel the foot.

I was living in an apartment up in Edgewater. It's a better situation for me to be in Town Hall, where I have ten people on a floor that might be concerned about me, instead of being in an apartment building where I may know the person across the hall, but they're not gonna be concerned about me. And we're not paying the cost that it would be to live in this neighborhood. I love my unit. I love it. This is my last move.

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