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Gay Old Time

Mark Andresen

Gay Old Time
Over the hill and over the rainbow? Dallas may have a home for you.

Because there are more important things to talk about--like who's hot--it should come as no surprise that at Minc, and in the bars along Cedar Springs Road, the talk on a recent weekend was not about gay marriage or New Jersey Governor James McGreevey's coming-out revelation. It has been a divisive year in America in all things gay. It has also been a distracting one: While Republicans and Democrats manipulate the wedge issue of gay marriage, a group of gay and lesbian Dallasites, adopting the laissez-faire capitalism that Republicans trumpet, have moved ahead on a plan to build a gay and lesbian retirement village here.

It might induce nausea in the young gay bar crowd to consider it now, but should they remain in Dallas, they will likely have the option of retiring to a place touted by its founders as the nation's first gay and lesbian "continuing-care retirement community," known in the geriatric industry as a CCRC. There are a handful of gay and lesbian retirement villages in the nation being built or already completed, but they don't feature all the components the board of directors of Dallas' Silver Hope Project are planning: residences for independent living, an assisted living facility, a unit for memory-impaired residents and an area for round-the-clock nursing care. "The only time you'll have to move is when you go to rest land," says Jim LeCroy, the vice president of the Silver Hope board.

Lory Masters, a real estate agent who has been integrally involved in the effort to establish the village, says that the project is in the developmental phase, though she has raised $175,000 to fund a feasibility study that will reveal where the village could be built and how many people would want to live there. Although no contracts have been signed to begin construction, she hopes that it will be ready in three to five years.

A former elementary school principal named Robert Voelkle is the board president of the Silver Hope Project. His penchant for "punching the buttons and seeing things happen" at his job didn't exactly dissipate when he retired, so although the Silver Hope Project has been in existence for at least six years, "Robert has been tenacious in driving people crazy to do things," Masters says.

One of the tasks Voelkle assigned to Masters was to raise the money to pay for the feasibility study, but she has also been calling on the managers of both traditional and gay and lesbian retirement villages across the nation. She has also been trying to find a "respected" architect and management company to build and eventually run the village.

She found an enthusiastic partner, for example, in Frank Rees Associates, a Dallas architectural firm that specializes in building health-care, broadcasting and retirement facilities. Three years ago, when architect Christopher Villanueva first heard about the Silver Hope Project, he told Rees, the firm's president and chief executive officer, that it was something the firm ought to get involved in, particularly given their previous experience in building niche retirement communities. "It seems that no one has been able to get a successful [gay and lesbian] CCRC out there," Villanueva admits, but he says that the Silver Hope Project will succeed because Rees is "a very determined man" and because of the firm's experience. Rees says that when he was told about the situation that many elderly gay and lesbian people face--couples who want to move in at a traditional retirement village but are rebuffed, for example--he wanted "to create an environment where that doesn't happen."

The Silver Hope board and Masters hosted a meeting this summer to debrief local "movers and shakers," as Voelkle says, about the project. Town hall-type meetings will be held for gay and lesbian Dallasites sometime after the feasibility study has been completed, but for the invitation-only meeting, Masters had commissioned a brochure to be printed. When she received the first draft, it featured a picture of "little old white-haired ladies on white couches," Masters recalls. That was not going to do. "Do not make me send this to the gay community," she told Rees Associates. "Gay men wouldn't be caught dead in that. I want handsome gay men in ascots."

Rees says that the 400 surveys that interested people have filled out at the project's Web site (www.silverhope.com) indicate that there are enough potential residents, who are not required to be gay or lesbian, for the village to have "a high probability of success." Planners estimate that anywhere from 120 to 150 residences for independent living would be built in the first phase of the village's construction, which would be finished an estimated 54 months from the day the Silver Hope board signs a contract with the architect, developer and manager. "What we're trying to do is hold [the cost of a unit] down to $150,000 to $200,000," Voelkle says.

 

When Rees began casting about among his developer and management contacts, however, a number of them said they were too busy when they learned the nature of the project. "We're taking more risks on this than we would on a normal project," he acknowledges, although he eventually found a partner in Charles Trammell, the CEO of Retirement Communities of America in Memphis, Tennessee. The only difference that Trammell sees between a traditional retirement village and the one the Silver Hope Project wants to build is technical, not cultural: "The mix of units would be a little bit different in that I think you might have more homes than apartments early on," he says.

But Voelkle sees a big difference. "We've had a lot of straight couples here in Dallas say, 'That's where I want to live because you guys are fun. I don't want to live with those old fuddy-duddies who want to teach me morality and don't want to step on a bug or anything.'" --Claiborne Smith

Aid Needs Aid

The blaze started in her daughter's bedroom, when no one was home. By the time fire crews put it out, half of Joy Burney's house had burned down. The contractor who was supposed to fix it ran off with the money, never to be found again. Then Long Beach Mortgage attempted to foreclose the property at 7117 Al Patterson Drive in Southern Dallas.

Burney turned to Legal Aid of Northwest Texas, a nonprofit corporation providing free legal service to the poor and domestically abused in 114 Texas counties. Today, two years after the fire, lenders have filed three lawsuits hoping to foreclose Burney's property. "Well, I'm still in my house," the 53-year-old says. "And if it wasn't for Legal Aid, I wouldn't have a house."

But Legal Aid is facing tough times. It's recently lost state and local grants totaling $357,000. The cutbacks have eliminated six attorneys--two of them in Dallas County. Yet the need for service has not declined. Since 2002, the number of people living in poverty in Legal Aid's service area has increased by 300,000. This, at a time when federal funding for the organization has remained stagnant for four years at about $27 million.

"We operate now like an emergency room," says Sam Prince, the director of development for Legal Aid. "The worst [cases] are first, and everybody else kind of gets pushed to the back of the line."

Prince relies increasingly on specialty grants, the sort that come from, say, the United Way; but, to compound matters for Dallas County, he's having difficulty securing funds. These grants are now competitive, with every nonprofit in a county pleading for dollars. And metropolitan counties aren't getting the money. The grants are going to rural areas, where there's a perceived lack of legal representation for the poor.

Prince would like to raise private money for the public funds Legal Aid recently lost. He's trying to do it through private Dallas attorneys, the sort who, as Prince says, "have not been trained to give."

Somehow, Burney says, Dallas County must get the money. She says she couldn't imagine her life without Legal Aid. --Paul Kix

The Second Front

Last Wednesday night, Dr. Pam Johnson and Yvette Thornhill showed up at Dreamz, an African-American nightclub on Greenville Avenue, arrayed in elegant black outfits that allowed them to fit right in with the upscale crowd. But they weren't there to hobnob: They're members of the Women's Ad-Hoc Committee at AIDS Arms; as they stood outside the club enumerating statistics about the rate at which minority women in Dallas are being infected with HIV, they clutched bright blue posters and a bag of condoms.

The United Nations Global AIDS Fund has determined that women are being infected with HIV at a faster rate in the United States than anywhere else in the world. Although blacks and Hispanics make up 25 percent of women in the United States, they now account for 80 percent of all AIDS cases among women. Dallas County Health and Human Services numbers indicate that Dallas mirrors those statistics, and in the three years since AIDS Arms' Peabody Health Center opened, the rate of women testing positive there has jumped from 13 percent to 27 percent.

"What seems to have happened all of a sudden is that it took the disease reaching the numbers it has for women to pay attention," says Raeline Nobles, the executive director of AIDS Arms. To ensure that women get tested, the Women's Ad-Hoc Committee recently devised its What Women Need to Know campaign and printed up posters that ask, "Have you ever had unprotected sex of any kind? Ever suspected a partner of being on the 'down low'? Ever had sex with someone who shoots up?" The posters offer a number to call to schedule free testing.

 

The first phase of the campaign will be directed at places where African-American women gather, and the planned second phase will attempt to reach Hispanic women.

The owner of Dreamz, Kassahun Kebede, had eagerly said yes when the women asked him if they could hang their posters at his club. The women quickly taped the posters to the inside of the bathroom stall doors. That way, "if you don't want your friend to know, you can read it real quick and memorize the number or write it down," Thornhill pointed out. --Claiborne Smith


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