For 28 years, Peter Greene lived in a rent-controlled Victorian flat above a travel agency he co-founded in San Francisco’s Castro District. Originally from New York City, he hitchhiked here in the mid-'70s from Colorado, where he went to school.
“I couldn’t believe when I walked down Castro Street there was just freedom,” Greene recalled. “I just never felt like I could be harmed again in any way. It was a sanctuary.”
But in the 1980s the AIDS crisis hit “and the Castro became a sad place for many years.” Greene helped runNow, Voyager, the gay and lesbian travel service, for a decade until he found out he had AIDS.
Most of his life since then, he said, has been spent fighting illness. One thing he didn’t have to worry about, until recently, was his apartment.
“I’ve been under rent control, which has made so much possible for me to live in the city and I just never really considered what it would be like without this apartment,” said Greene.
Last December, the owner decided to sell and the new owner opted to move in. After months of what Greene calls “lawyering,” he agreed to a buyout and left.
“The thing with these buyouts is where to do you go? People say well, you got ‘blah, blah, blah amount of dollars,’ but it doesn’t create a new life here in San Francisco. You’re just essentially just being told to get out of town, and here's a few bucks to try and figure it out.”
No place like San Francisco for those with AIDS
Greene said for people living with HIV and AIDS, leaving San Francisco is a daunting prospect, because it has been at the forefront of research and care. Greene has participated in more than 20 clinical trials. He has been rooted in his beloved Castro neighborhood, even though it’s changing.
“You’re scared because you feel like you’ve been kept alive by this thing that you’ve set in place that has taken many, many years,” said Greene. “By destroying one life, by displacing one person, you displace so much of the good that they’ve done, the people they’re connected to.”
Things have been especially hard since April when Jonathan Klein, the longtime owner of Now, Voyager, committed suicide six months after he took a buyout and was forced to leave his apartment. Klein had been staying with Greene, and when the building's owner decided to sell, Klein's travel shop was in limbo.
“When we were told to leave, it was another blow. It was just a trifecta when one day he got up and went out to the Golden Gate Bridge and jumped,” said Greene. “I’ve lived through the AIDS crisis and lost a lot of friends, but there’s something about suicide. Shoulda, woulda, coulda.”
Greene, who's almost 60, said he’s been lucky because he’s been able to couch-surf with friends. He plans to move to Palm Springs to help care for a friend with cancer. "I still have the opportunity to make something of myself. It just gets harder as you get older and wake up with more of this and that."
LGBT seniors at risk
Housing and tenant rights advocates say evictions are happening all over the city at an alarming rate, and driving some LGBT people into homelessness. The city’s most recent homeless count found that 29 percent are LGBT, and 9.2 percent said they were homeless because of an eviction.
“We are at a 12-year high for evictions in San Francisco, fueled by real estate speculation,” said Brian Basinger, the executive director of the AIDS Housing Alliance.
A recent report by the city’s budget analyst found that the highest rates of no-fault evictions in the city were in the Castro and Bernal Heights.
“These are the historically gay male and lesbian women communities,” he said. “We are the most disproportionate community targeted for displacement.”
Basinger said disabled LGBT seniors are among the most vulnerable. A recent reportby the city's LGBT Aging Policy Task Force found that 40 percent of LGBT seniors surveyed did not have the minimum income to meet their basic needs. Fifteen percent have contemplated suicide in the past year.
Tim Oviatt, 64, had a tough time getting into low-income housing after he was kicked out of his apartment. He has a job at a local retail store. When I interviewed him, he took me to the store's parking lot, where he was living in his Chrysler convertible.
“I have blankets and pillows in the trunk and just put the seat down as low as it'll go and just cocoon up in there. It doesn't make for a great night's sleep.”
For 26 years, Oviatt, who moved to San Francisco in the 1970s from Detroit, owned a boutique store in the heart of the Castro known as All American Boy. When the recession hit, a string of calamitous events began. He lost his shop, made some bad business decisions, couldn't pay his mortgage and his partner died from AIDS.
Oviatt, also living with AIDS, said his feet swell up when he sleeps in the car, and it's been broken into.
“It truly has worn me down. I mean, I’m pretty strong, but this takes the hell out of you and it’s expensive, believe it or not, living on the street, because you have no place to cook.”
Oviatt said his co-workers were supportive for the eight months he was forced to live in his car. Since our interview in July, he's found housing, thanks to the AIDS Housing Alliance, which in recent years has helped more than 1,000 LGBT people avoid becoming homeless.
“We just don’t have a good safety net in this society,” said Oviatt. “I don’t know what the solution is but there has to be a better way then there is now.”
More elected officials are paying attention to the problem, according to Basinger, and he's urging the city to direct more money into preventing and getting LGBT people out of homelessness.
Bevan Dufty, the former Castro District supervisor who is Mayor Ed Lee's point person on homelessness, said he was alarmed to find out that 29 percent of homeless are LGBT, and he would like to see the number reduced by 50 percent within three or four years.
"We’re in discussions with some of the key city departments such as the Human Services Agency and our public health department to really look at strategies we can collaborate on that really focus in on LGBT homelessness," he said.
Those strategies would include addressing "the insecurity and the lack of housing stability that people can feel in this very changing and heated rental market in San Francisco."
One way city officials and housing and tenant advocates are collaborating to address LGBT homelessness is bringing together organizations that serve the LGBT community with organizations that have typically served the general homeless population.
Next week, the LGBT Community Center will host a first-of-its-kind event for those LGBT people who are homeless or at risk. Called LGBTQ Connect, it's modeled after Project Homeless Connect. Dufty said that program has helped more than 2,000 homeless individuals get access to services, such as dental care, over the past 10 years.
"We’ve been going out to a lot of different locations recognizing that LGBT homeless individuals are in our shelter system, they are sleeping in Golden Gate Park, they are on Castro Street, and we’re reaching far and wide to bring people in," said Dufty.