Almost three decades ago, Larry Biddle joined Barbara Gittings, “Mother of Lesbian and Gay Liberation,” and other activists to create a foundation to address unmet needs in the Philadelphia-area LGBTQ community.
Biddle has done it again, this time helping to found The Plus Projec+ to support organizations and programs assisting LGBTQ+ youth, adults and seniors in the Tampa Bay area. The foundation has already distributed its first round of grants that, among other things, are being used to counter bigotry, teach inclusion and aid the vulnerable, most especially the young and the elderly.
Young LGBTQ+ people tell of being kicked out of their families’ lives and their homes. Some older LGBTQ people feel isolated. One woman asked for a Tickle Me Elmo just to hear another voice.
Most of us are oblivious to such problems, but LGBTQ+ youth are “significantly over-represented” among the homeless, the federal website Youth.gov says.
Loneliness can engulf LGBTQ elderly, along with a fear of not having family to help them as they age. Funding from the Plus Projec+ is helping to address issues like these.
And while older LGBTQ people might be invisible to a large swath of the population, those over the age of 50 number about 3 million, according to SAGE, one of the nation’s oldest and largest organizations focusing on advocacy and services for LGBTQ elders. That number could reach about 7 million by 2030, the group says.
Epic Generations, a new program of Empath Health that supports older LGBTQ people, was among the first to get a Plus Projec+ grant. An important aspect of the program is helping elder care providers understand “the unique challenges and needs” of this segment of the population.
Susan Talbott, Epic Generations’ LGBTQ community support counselor, explained that such challenges are rooted in “years and years of discrimination and stigma.” And, she said, many older LGBTQ people don’t have an adequate support system.
“This generation did not get married and have children. This is the generation that probably has been separated from their families for years and years. They are two times more likely to be unpartnered and or live alone and four times more likely to not have children that are going to be around to help take care of them as they age,” she said.
The Epic Generations program includes a “friendly caller” outreach that links seniors with volunteers through regular telephone calls. The pandemic has stalled social gatherings, but plans are being made for get-togethers, outings and other activities.
But there was gift giving at Christmas. Board member Dena Manis, with the National Cremation Society, made it possible for seniors to receive a gift to open at Christmas. Talbot, who got to do the shopping, said she was thrilled to be able to see, for the first time, and at a safe distance, the seniors with whom she had been speaking for months.
They had asked, she said, for “just simple things that make life a little bit richer.” Like a new pair of tennis shoes, a Tickle Me Elmo, and a Netflix gift card to see the shows others at an assisted living facility were raving about.
The program, though, is more than socializing. It provides cultural competency training for providers such as the Area Agency on Aging of Pasco-Pinellas, Florida Department of Health Pinellas, adult day centers and community groups.
“It’s about seeing the world through their eyes and trying to understand their fears,” Talbott said. “As a society, we are evolving to the point where we don’t just fit into the four check boxes of single, married, widowed, divorced. We really need to have the conversations and ask people, ‘Who is important in your life? Who do you get your support from?”
Talbott is grateful for the $9,400 Plus Projec+ grant. “They were the ones that recognized that this was a need in the community,” she said. “What it allowed us to do was to get off the ground.”
It was a few years ago that Biddle reached out to Molly James, who was working with the Community Foundation of Tampa Bay at the time, to tell her about the Philadelphia project and suggest that it should be replicated here. They presented the idea to the foundation, which agreed to help. The Plus Projec+ now works closely with the Community Foundation, which invests its funds and helps to distribute them after awards are made.
The vision “is to be an innovative and inclusive funding source for organizations serving the Tampa Bay LGBTQ+ community, and to provide an enduring means for increasing awareness and enhancing effectiveness for those organizations,” the website states.
The Plus Projec+ idea had been in the chrysalis stage for about four and a half years. “Now, we are trying to increase the awareness of what we do,” Biddle said, adding that the initiative is especially focused on helping fledgling organizations that lack the advantage of legacy funds.
“The Plus Projec+ is more reactive to the current needs of the broader community,” he said.
Besides meeting immediate needs, contributions to The Plus Projec+ also support an endowment meant “to ensure a permanent, reliable revenue stream to address emerging needs.” Biddle and his husband, David Warner, are among those who have designated funds in their estate plans to the Plus Projec+ to enable it to continue its work through the Community Foundation.
The pandemic slowed plans to increase funds, but Biddle says the goal is to raise $100,000 in the next 12 months. The first grants were distributed in 2020.
Besides Epic Generations, grants were awarded to Community Tampa Bay’s Anytown, which “empowers thousands of young people to create more inclusive and just schools and communities.” Metro Inclusive Health’s LGBTQ+ youth programming, Equality Florida’s Safe and Healthy Schools program and the League of Women Voters of Florida’s Equality Voters campaign, which included the Diversity in Democracy mural, also received awards.
Youth Improvement Services, which provides emergency assistance to LGBTQ+ youth and helps them get back on their feet, received $10,000. Executive director Deroll Barrett told me that Black and Hispanic LGBTQ+ youth are disproportionately affected by homelessness.
“The population that we serve are the most marginalized. They are the minorities within a minority and they lack access to resources that other LGBTQ people might have access to,” he said.
Youth.gov identifies four top causes for homelessness among LGBT youth: family rejection; physical, emotional or sexual abuse; aging out of the foster care system; and financial and emotional neglect.
Homelessness, though, is just one challenge that afflicts LGBTQ+ youth. Analyzing the CDC’s 2019 Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance data, the Human Rights Campaign Foundation declared that LGBTQ youth “are living in a state of crisis.”
Furthermore, HRC said: “Whether it is being bullied in school, poor mental health or substance use, LGBTQ teens experience marginalization from multiple angles. The analysis shows that LGBTQ youth of color are often at even greater risk of experiencing these problems.”
Homelessness among LGBTQ+ youth has been exacerbated by the pandemic, Barrett said. “We provide emergency bridge housing, about up to 30 days at a motel and then we work with the other local agencies that serve the homeless population to get them into permanent housing,” he said, adding that those his organization helped were able to resolve their homelessness within 30 days.
“We provide the resources for them to exit homelessness. While they are in temporary housing, they are required to participate in a housing action plan to exit homelessness and develop skills.”
Virtual activities include lessons in financial literacy. Participation is rewarded with Walmart and other gift cards. Publix also is a sponsor of the program.
Barrett said he is grateful to Plus Projec+ for enabling his organization to respond to an urgent need that was made worse by the pandemic.
It is heartening that resources from Plus Projec+ are available for such causes, but discouraging that they are necessary. The challenges facing young LGBTQ+ people – coming to maturity during a supposedly enlightened time – and their more reserved elders are sadly the same. They can be summed up in a couple of words: bigotry and bullying.