I recently read about Alex Sangha and his mission to create Dignity House, an affordable housing facility for LGBTT (keep reading for an explanation of that second ‘T’) in Vancouver, British Columbia. It’s called Dignity House because, as Alex reminds us, words have meaning, and making sure we have dignity as we age, and that we extend it to each other at every age, is a powerful use of language.
Alex has the kind of passion and determination required to see the needs of our aging population addressed and met. Below is an interview with him that will undoubtedly leave you as impressed as I was with his commitment, drive and purpose. – Mark/Editor
MM: Before we get to Dignity House … who is Alex Sangha? Can you tell use a little about yourself and your journey?
AS: I’m a 40 year old Master of Social Work student at Dalhousie University, which is based in Halifax, Nova Scotia. My practicum is my last course, which I am doing in the Vancouver area with a non-profit agency. I have an MSc in Public Administration and Public Policy from the Department of Government from the London School of Economics in the UK.
I’ve worked as a social worker with the Ministry of Children and Family Development in Special Needs and Child Care, Foster Care, and Adults with Developmental Disabilities. I have also worked as a Youth Counsellor for the Boys and Girls Club.
In terms of the LGBT community, I was Co-Chair of Pride UBC during my time as an undergrad social work student at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. I am also the Founder of Sher Vancouver ,which is a social, cultural, and support organization for LGBT South Asians and their friends, families, and allies. In addition, I used to be a social affairs columnist and have published two books and have written many articles on gay and lesbian rights and social issues.
MM: You chose the name “Dignity House” because, as you’ve said, words have meaning. Why have you chosen a mission that serves the aging LGBTT population? Why do elders and their needs resonate with you?
AS: My grandmother and mother are both seniors and live with me in suburban Vancouver. They are both involved in various local seniors’ centres. They’re also active members of a local seniors women’s friends group. The ladies are always coming to my house and I have started to appreciate their knowledge, experience in life, and contribution to our community, as well as learning about their day-to-day difficulties and challenges.
In terms of my social work practice, I have worked with many senior citizens and learned about seniors in university. I prepared a 30 page draft discussion paper about Dignity House which is available for download on the Dignity House Facebook Group.
I learned that many LGBT seniors are often forced back into the closet because they are fearful of discrimination and abuse from their caregivers and fellow residents. They are vulnerable and isolated due to a lack of family and social support and most LGBT elders don’t have children to care for them. Basically, the bullies that were there at the beginning of their lives when they were fighting for our basic rights and protections are back at the end of their lives. This can be a very scary situation and effectively silence LGBT seniors.
We know elder abuse exists and we know homophobia and especially transphobia exists. The combination of these factors can lead to a dangerous environment for LGBT seniors in care facilities. Many LGBT elders are refusing care or refusing to go into traditional care facilities for these very reasons. They are staying at home when it’s a risk to their physical health and safety.
MM: Second part of that question: You use the acronym LGBTT, with the second ‘T’ for two-spirited. The other person I’ve interviewed who uses that term is from the U.S. Southwest, where there’s a strong American Indian presence. Is it more common in your area as well?
AS: I used to attend an Aboriginal talking circle for many years. I learned a lot about two-spirited people and elders and Aboriginal spirituality. I was going through a depression at this time and my connection with various older members and Aboriginal elders of the group helped transform my life and fill me with a sense of inner peace and happiness, as well as self-confidence.
Yes, the term two-spirited is becoming more common. To be more inclusive the term should be LGBTTQI which includes queer and intersex. I will most likely change that to reflect this diversity in the future.
MM: This project is part of your Master’s work. For those of us who don’t know how these things work: is this a thesis? And if you succeed, what will be your involvement with Dignity House?
AS: The Dignity House project has been approved by my Master of Social Work practicum supervisor. I’m still waiting for my faculty field advisor at Dalhousie University to sign off on the project.
My practicum is 450 hours total and I am expecting to get credit for so many hours towards the Dignity House project.
My practicum may have been the catalyst for this project but my involvement will remain as part of my duties as a citizen and social worker and social activist in the community. This is more than a learning experience for me, it is the very reason I got into social work as a career. I want to help make a difference in people’s lives, especially for those who are among the most marginalized and vulnerable among us.
MM: You mention other cities (including my own NYC) having established or planning to establish housing for LGBT seniors. Have you visited any, or connected with the administrators or planners?
AS: I have downloaded research from the Openhouse project which is a proposed facility in San Francisco. I have watched videos about the Triangle Square project in Los Angeles. I have read various articles in the news media about the various LGBT seniors’ housing projects in various cities across North America and posted them on the Dignity House Facebook Group. I hope to visit Montreal on a pit stop when I attend my graduation in Halifax in May but this is not confirmed yet. Montreal apparently has an LGBT seniors’ facility.
I have visited and spoken with the management, residents, and staff at Haro Park Centre which is a seniors care facility located in the heart of the LGBT community of Vancouver in the West End.
MM: Affordability is an important issue to me: there are a few retirement communities for LGBT people of means, but many, if not most, of us will have limited resources when we reach that point in our lives. Dignity House is to be affordable housing. Can you address that need in particular – affordability?
AS: Vancouver has a relatively inflated housing market. There is low vacancy and high cost. The LGBT community is centred in the city’s pricy West End and Downtown. The population is aging and the politicians and decision makers need to develop housing for all the people including LGBT elders and seniors of all incomes. I don’t want to see “social cleansing” happen in Vancouver, where all the poor people are squeezed out of the city due to a lack of affordable housing. I think many people in Vancouver are at risk of homelessness and seniors are an especially vulnerable group. I feel LGBT seniors are even more at-risk because they are often alienated, isolated, and alone in their elder years.
MM: Can you say a little about Sher Vancouver – it’s purpose and community?
I founded Sher Vancouver in April 2008. Sher Vancouver is a social, cultural, and support organization for LGBT South Asians and their friends, families, and allies. Sher has grown to over 450 members. Sher provides advocacy, counseling, information, referral, outreach presentations to combat bullying and racism, social activities, peer support, and volunteer opportunities for its members. Sher received funding from the BC Government to launch the “DOSTI” project which means “friendship” in many South Asian languages. The DOSTI project hired queer youth to go into high schools and educate students about homophobia and discrimination issues. Sher Vancouver has won awards and considerable fanfare for its popular annual Pride of Bollywood float in the Vancouver Pride Parade. Sher Vancouver has non-profit status through an affiliated agency.
MM: At this stage you’re looking for 200 people to donate $100 each, in your effort to reach an initial seed amount of $25,000 Canadian. This is to hire a consultant to do a needs assessment and feasibility study. I see from the Facebook page that you’ve got donations coming in. How can people make a donation?
Dignity House has partnered with the Progressive Intercultural Community Services (PICS) Society for fundraising purposes. People can make out a cheque to “PICS” and mail it to:
11548 84 Avenue
Delta, BC V4C 2M1
Canadian donors will receive a tax deductible receipt and all donors worldwide will receive a thank you letter signed by the CEO or PICS and countersigned by myself acknowledging you as a Founding Donor of Dignity House. I have only raised $2000.00 so far so any help our friends, families, allies, and supporters, and our brothers and sisters can provide would be greatly appreciated. For more information people are welcome to email me at email@example.com
MM: What’s the next phase for Dignity House, and if everything goes well, what sort of timeline is there from now until people could actually walk through the doors?
AS: Dignity House could take anywhere from 5 to 15 years to become a reality. Timing is everything, as well as the political and economic environment. If we are prepared, however, and money becomes available for a project then Dignity House may quickly become a priority.
The next phase of Dignity House is to fundraise for a needs assessment and feasibility study. Then a Dignity House LGBT Advisory Committee of community members and key stakeholders will be established to provide feedback on the project.