Retirement home for LGBTQ2S+ seniors is in the works

· The Pulse

The Edmonton Pride Seniors Group (EPSG) is getting closer to its dream of building a queer-friendly retirement home.

The group is working with the city to acquire a piece of land on which to build an affordable housing development where queer seniors can feel comfortable and safe being themselves, without worrying about whether the residents or staff will accept them. It has also signed a memorandum of understanding with the Garneau United Assisted Living Place (GUALP) to manage the home in a way that aligns with the EPSG's values.

GUALP currently owns and operates The Ashbourne, a 110-unit seniors' facility in the Garneau area that specifies that it welcomes members of the LGBTQ2S+ community. But the need is much greater than that one facility can fulfill.

"We surveyed a number of people from the community, and one of the biggest concerns they had was feeling like they would have to go back into the closet," said Blair MacKinnon, one of the leads of the project. "Could you imagine? Or if I am a trans person, is the staff going to understand my needs. An older transgender person will have different needs than an older straight white man."

The EPSG has its eye on a piece of land in The Quarters, which would be close to downtown, bike paths, buses, and the new LRT line. But it has not yet been designated for affordable housing, and both executive committee and city council would have to approve any purchase or transfer of publicly owned land to the EPSG.

The plan is to make it a 50-unit, mixed-income building, meaning that about 40% of the units would be available at 80% of market rental rates.

The project was conceived in 2013, but the serious work didn't begin until around 2015. The project was taken to the next level when MacKinnon came aboard in 2017. He joined the EPSG in 2017 after retiring from over 30 years of working in various positions in the Alberta provincial civil service, including several projects with Alberta Health.

"The project was something I knew I wanted to be part of instantly," he said.

A rainbow of flags held aloft on a street during a Pride parade

Unlike today, when Pride is celebrated with parades and special events, many Edmonton seniors grew up in a world where being gay or trans was considered a criminal offence, immoral, or a mental health condition. The Edmonton Pride Seniors Group doesn't want to see them treated like that again. (Mack Male/Flickr)

Being LGBTQ2S+ is much more accepted now than it was when most of today's seniors were young. But that doesn't guarantee they will be surrounded by staff and residents who accept them for who they are once they need the extra support that assisted living offers.

"Many people in our community came from a long, painful history, which is one of the critical reasons this is so important for our seniors," MacKinnon said.

There is a significant demand already. Of the 212 people who responded to a March 2020 survey on the project, more 60 people said they would be willing to move into the building in the next two to four years. The rest of the respondents said they might be interested in the future. Having people ready to move in has been key to moving this project forward.

The cost was estimated at about $21 million in 2020, but it would likely be higher today, given increases in construction costs and real estate prices. The EPSG will be seeking a mortgage as well as federal and municipal grants and donations to pay for the project.

The vision includes event rooms and a dining room to host guests.

"Our respondents wanted it to be more than just housing; they wanted it to be a community and feel like home. And that meant being with their friends," MacKinnon said.

The group wants the building designed so that it allows people to age in place, with services like home care, assistance with mobility, or other kinds of support to take care of their needs as they get older.

"In the design, we have space for health care and home care providers to have offices in the building," said MacKinnon.

Alberta's population is aging, as the baby boomer generation has almost entirely reached retirement age. The 2016 municipal census counted about 135,000 Edmontonians over the age of 60.

Toronto and Montreal already have senior housing geared towards the LGBTQ2S+ people, while Winnipeg and Calgary are working on similar projects.