The women of ZAMI NOBLA, the National Organization of Black Lesbians on Aging, are known for bringing critical issues to light. This year was no exception.
With the help of community crowdfunding, volunteers and the brave souls of Atlanta Fire Rescue wielding jackhammers, ZAMI NOBLA tackled the issue of affordable housing for LGBTQ seniors. By doing so, they put the pieces in place to provide homes to even more LGBTQ ATL-iens in 2020.
“In terms of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, if you have a safe, affordable, decent house, then a lot of your other needs can certainly be attended to,” said Mary Anne Adams, founding executive director of ZAMI NOBLA. “We want to provide as much space as we can for as many women as we can.”
The first home, the Biggers House, was a donation of ZAMI NOBLA board member Dr. Edith Biggers, a public health physician in Fulton County’s HIV clinic. Her parents purchased one of the first dwellings able to be owned by black Atlantans, and they retained ownership of the residence. It’s located on Tiger Flowers Drive, a road named for the first African-American World Middleweight Boxing Champion. The neighborhood is welcoming – it has two known LGBTQ sets of neighbors – and it’s convenient to public transit.
Biggers originally offered her childhood home to the organization as office space, but when Adams toured its halls, she had a better idea.
The two-bedroom house, with a little TLC, is set to become home to two senior women on fixed incomes. ZAMI NOBLA will start accepting applications for its residents soon, and it’s looking specifically for a lesbian couple or female LGBTQ roommates who are community-minded to fill those rooms.
The People’s House
Though its official name is the Biggers House, the home on Tiger Flowers Drive is affectionately referred to by a different moniker.
“It’s the people’s house. It’s truly the people’s house,” Adams said. “There is no way that we would be able to renovate this house without the community at large believing in us.”
Most of the money raised to renovate the Biggers House was done through social media and generous outside donations. Adams mentioned an area lesbian couple who donated several thousand dollars, calling the entire project “a precious gift.”
“This is a white lesbian couple who believes in what we’re doing. Different ages, races, genders, identities have donated to this house not only in money, but in sweat equity,” she said.
Firefighter Andre Holmes, LGBTQ liaison for Atlanta Fire Rescue, was familiar with ZAMI NOBLA’s work. When he found out about the Biggers House, he knew immediately it was something he wanted to get involved in. Holmes approached the Atlanta Fire Rescue Foundation and asked about working with one of its sponsors, Home Depot, on a specific project at the house. He secured a $3,000 grant to build an accessibility ramp at the house.
“We’re here to help create safe and sustainable communities,” Holmes said. “When we get sworn and we raise our hand and we say we’re going to become firefighters, one of our roles is to do exactly that. This fits into those values.”
There are historic values at play too.
“The first black firefighters that integrated Atlanta Fire Rescue did so at Station 16, which is on land that Tiger Flowers donated to the fire department,” Holmes said. “It’s just such a full-circle moment to do something as historic as LGBTQ senior housing there.”
Mind the Gap
In 2014, Adams led a study on aging in the black lesbian community, speaking with 100 women, aged 41 to 91. Housing came up repeatedly as an issue that needed to be addressed. She said several black lesbian elders were well-educated, but because they were open about their sexuality and didn’t want to be in the closet at work, chose to take under-the-table jobs outside of what they were educated in.
“They didn’t get Social Security paid in. They didn’t have retirement. They’ve been estranged from their families. They find themselves at this age without any financial safety net to fall back on. In Georgia, there’s no Medicaid expansion and you’re not sick enough to qualify for disability,” Adams said. “There’s a gap these women are falling into. And they’re poor. They are really at risk of dire poverty.”
Other LGBTQ Atlantans face similar risks and struggles when it comes to finding housing, and Adams became aware of fellow nonprofits working on similar strategies as the Biggers House.
“I said, ‘Listen. We need to come together,’” Adams said. “We are going to come together and form a consortium. It’s top of mind for us. We can only do so much in silos — we have to come together as an LGBTQ organization focused on housing, and there’s so much that we can do to help each other.”