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Housing and Homelessness

A Bisexual 63-Year-Old Woman Spent Five Years Couch Surfing In LA And Worries She May Have To Again

Lisa Chilton wears a flower-print sun dress as she sits in a chair in her living and looks out the window.
Lisa Chilton says there were many nights she sat at bus stops because she had no place to go. She now sits and overlooks a garden from a window in her new apartment. "When I see people living on the streets, I know that could have been me," she said. "It could still be me."
(Ethan Ward
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Lisa Chilton knows a thing or two about moving. She did it regularly for nearly five years and says she can pack a suitcase "with one hand, no eyes, from zero-to-go in under 20 minutes."

Editor's Note
  • LGBTQ+ people experiencing homelessness are a vulnerable group within an already vulnerable population. This is part two of a series that looks at the unique challenges faced by unhoused LGBTQ+ people, in this case those who are 50+ years-old.

The 63-year-old Chilton proudly acknowledges her skill as she shows me two suitcases she carried from the apartment building she lived in for 20 years in West Hollywood to a room in a boarding house, and later to the homes of friends and family in Venice, Redlands and Encino while couch surfing.

Chilton didn’t want to be “stinky fish,” so she made a deal to never be at anyone’s house for more than two or three weeks at a time.

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LGBTQ+ and over 50: The worrying never stops

“You keep fish for three days, it starts to reek,” she says. “When you are in someone else’s space, in someone’s else's home, even if you’re paying for it — it’s not yours.”

When you are in someone else’s space, in someone’s else's home, even if you’re paying for it — it’s not yours.
— Lisa Chilton

Couch surfing is one way someone can experience homelessness, and they are often the invisible unhoused of a city, along with those who live in their cars. Chilton hasn’t had a lease since 2011 and no legal right to any of the houses where she’s lived since — until August when she received the keys to one of 19 new studio apartments at the Ariadne Getty Foundation Senior Housing complex in Hollywood.

“I walked into the apartment and the tears just started running,” Chilton recalled as we got comfortable at the dining room table in the furnished apartment. “I had keys and these were mine, you know? I had a legal right to these. Every place I had been I had keys, but I never had a legal right.”

Although Chilton is grateful to be in her own apartment again, her path into and out of homelessness underscores the lingering impact it can have on mental health. It’s easy to lose pieces of yourself while unhoused — and it takes considerable work to find those pieces again.

Coping With Trauma

In 2007, Chilton had a full-time job with benefits, working for the city of West Hollywood as a licensing officer in the code compliance department. She says two accidents within a two-week period at work left her with a grade 4 concussion, countless doctor’s appointments and 24 surgeries. Unable to work, she says she lived off her savings for nearly two years, fighting what she calls an “ugly” worker’s compensation claim against the city.

During this time, Chilton exhausted more savings caring for her sick grandmother in a hospice in Chicago. After her grandmother died, she returned to the apartment building she’d lived in for roughly 20 years, and found herself in a battle with a new landlord.

“The new owners wanted to refurbish the building, as well as get out previously existing tenants who were under rent control,” she said. “I was one of them.”

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Chilton says she declined cash buyouts of $20,000 and then $40,000, but couldn’t refuse when offered $100,000.

I felt as if I was pretending to be someone else for almost five someone else's space.
— Lisa Chilton

“I was about $40,000 in debt,” she said. “I had no income for well over a year and was scraping to eat, let alone pay the bills. I knew that it would only be a stopgap. I knew that when I took it.”

Chilton says she was forced into disability retirement by the city of West Hollywood, which left her with a small pension that she calls “unlivable,” so she moved to an even smaller apartment. Then she needed another knee replacement. In 2011, realizing she wouldn’t be able to maintain the $1,100 rent, she made arrangements to downsize again to a room in a friend’s three-bedroom house for $500 a month. It was there that Chilton says she realized she was stripped of any feeling of security and began losing bits of herself as she watched a revolving door of tenants renting rooms in the house.

“I found myself very isolated in [that] house and room,” she recalls. “I felt as if I was pretending to be someone else for almost five years ... in someone else's space.”

After what Chilton describes as a “hellish” five years, everyone at the house was asked to vacate. With nowhere to go, Chilton says she donated most of her clothing to Goodwill so that her belongings would fit in two suitcases. That began her nearly five-year journey of using public transportation to couch surf at the homes of friends and family — a journey she says caused her, as she awoke each morning, to remind herself where she was and how she should behave in each environment.

“It was almost as if I had to put on a different Lisa skin for every place I went,” she says. “When you are laying your head down on a different surface every couple weeks, when you’re older, it changes your body. Every couple of weeks I was in pain because I was adapting to where I was sleeping again.”

Chilton says she couldn’t move in permanently at any one place for various reasons: someone was caring for an elderly parent, there was an elderly housemate, kids, or the single woman with a love life who needed her apartment alone from time to time. She says in order to stay sane, she made it a goal to be “small” and “useful” by cooking and cleaning so she didn’t wear out her welcome.

“I learned how to make it be okay ... so I’m not developing resentment for the kindness I’ve been given, just because the environment wasn’t what I wanted it to be,” she says.

According to the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority, homelessness among older adults increased 20% from 2017-20 and half of them said that economic hardship led to their situation. One-in-five said that disabling health conditions led them into homelesssness.

When Affordable Housing Isn’t So Affordable

Chilton is grateful to now be in her own space, but she lives on a fixed pension and small Social Security allotment. She worries whether her time in her new home will be temporary, because she uses nearly 60% of her income on rent.

“It’s not rent-controlled, there will be rent increases,” she says. “But there won't be increases on my income ... I’m not breaking $1,600 a month.”

Chilton said the apartment was initially offered to her for $1,200 per month, which would have been 75% of her income, but she turned it down saying she couldn’t make that work. A week later, the leasing office called and offered her the apartment for $956 per month. She accepted because she didn’t want to go back on a waiting list, which could take years.

“Right now I can afford it, but I don’t know if that will be the case five years from now,” she says.

People don't appreciate enough how poor some of our seniors are.
— Richard Green, Director, USC Lusk Center for Real Estate

Richard Green, director of the USC Lusk Center for Real Estate, says seniors are the fastest-growing unhoused population.

“People don't appreciate enough how poor some of our seniors are,” Green says. “A quarter of seniors live on incomes of $20,000 a year or less, which means they can afford rent of $500 a month. There’s nothing [in L.A.] that is $500 a month.”

Green says the pandemic exacerbated Southern California's affordability crisis for renters because people are moving less. He says the eviction moratorium didn’t help, adding that seniors in this state — unlike in other parts of the country — are also less likely to be homeowners.

Kiera Pollock, director of senior services at the Los Angeles LGBT Center, says affordable housing fortunately limits the size of rent hikes.

Exterior of the Anita May Rosenstein building for seniors in Hollywood.
The Anita May Rosenstein campus for seniors at the LA LGBT Center in Hollywood, where residents are offered support groups, dances and virtual parties.
(Courtesy of the LA LGBT Center)

“The rents can only increase $25-$50 a year,” she says. “That sounds small, but for people on fixed incomes, that can be really hard. It's our job at the center to advocate for lowering increases and help find them supplemental income to support their budget.”

Pollock says in the past three years, the main request she handles is finding affordable housing for seniors, which includes people who are living on the streets to people who are housing insecure to people priced out of where they’re currently living, like Chilton was.

According to Pollock, from 2019-2020, the center experienced a 70.5% increase in serving unhoused seniors, and the number of visits to their program increased by 37.5%. (Visits are any type of service, which can include meals, case management, support groups, or calls for assistance).

“What’s difficult is the housing stock is not here,” Pollock says. “There isn't enough development of senior housing to meet the needs of the explosion of baby boomers who are turning 65 and retiring.”

The housing insecure person becomes the next homeless person. If we don't deal with affordable housing for folks who are not yet homeless, we will have even more problems down the road.
— Kiera Pollock, Director of Senior Services, LA LGBT Center

Because of the lack of affordable housing for seniors, Pollock says her staff is forced to have hard conversations with seniors about possibly moving out of Los Angeles because of their income.

“It’s a battle that we’re not winning,” she says. “The housing insecure person becomes the next homeless person. If we don't deal with affordable housing for folks who are not yet homeless, we will have even more problems down the road.”

Pollock says there’s been a lot of movement to supply housing vouchers to more low-income people, but she would also like to see vouchers prioritized for older adults. She says since July the center has referred at least 25 people to get vouchers, but they haven’t been provided.

“I can only refer people into the pool,” she says. "I would like to see them get equitably prioritized.”

There’s no place like home

Chilton says, after not having her own place for a decade, she still struggles with feeling like the rug is about to be snatched from under her. She hasn’t hung any pictures on the walls or bought a slipcover for the bed. Sometimes she sits and looks out the window and grins, other times she cries — purely from the joy of being in her new home, she says.

The first meal she cooked was a sirloin steak with a side salad, but she’s gearing up to make her favorite dish, liver — which wasn’t welcome in other people's houses because of the smell. Which is another thing she loves: having her own bathroom again.

“I’ve had people complain about the smell of my poop,” she laughs. “The real issue was I was in their house and they didn’t want me there anymore.”

Chilton still has a collection of keys from every house where she couch surfed. They rest in a glass jar on a shelf as a “talisman of the kindness” she’s been given, and to remind herself of the temporary and transitory nature of life.

Lisa holds a glass jar that contains all of the keys to the places she's couch surfed for nearly five years.
Lisa keeps the keys to all the places she's couch surfed in a jar on a shelf in her living room.
(Ethan Ward

“Each time I've tried to return those keys I’ve been told to keep them,” she says. “In some cases it's so I can walk a dog, but I know they are having me keep them just in case I need them again.”

Chilton believes everything happened for a reason. Though she didn’t choose to stop working, fight a workers comp case, go into disability retirement, or move from place-to-place, she says she had to learn to not be resentful. Having permanent housing again couldn’t have come at a better time because the life expectancy of people experiencing homelessness is 64, compared to 77 for the average person in the U.S., according to LAHSA. Chilton turns 64 next year.

“Most of us go through life with very little upheaval or change,” she says. “We see people who sleep on the streets as them. But it's not them, it’s us, and at any time we can be out there on those streets.”

Chilton says that no matter how much money someone has in the bank, or how secure they view their lives, it can all change after a series of unfortunate events, such as loss of income, savings, family members or their home.

We see people who sleep on the streets as them. But it's not them, it’s us, and at any time we can be out there on those streets.
— Lisa Chilton

“I still have dreams of who and what I was 10-15 years ago,” she says. “I'd like to think that my heart was open. I thought so, but now I know differently. Now when I see those who appear hopeless, I know they are very close to me in ways that I didn’t see before.”

Chilton recently returned from a trip to Redlands, one of the places where she once couch surfed. She said it finally felt like she was just visiting, and that she got emotional when she left, knowing she was returning to her own home. Chilton, who is bisexual, says she hasn’t dated in more than a decade. I texted her and asked if she’s ready to date, now that she's back in her own place and in better health.

She replied: “I’m open to whatever at this point, so yes. And that’s been a big NO for most of the past 18 years.”