Key Takeaways

  • People come to the Center on Addison because it is a safe, trusted space where older adults, especially those who are LGBTQ, can connect and get support.

  • The center is a partner in the LGBTQ+ Intergenerational Dialogue Project bringing together racially, socioeconomically, and gender diverse groups of college students and older adults.

  • Center staff can serve as surrogate family for LGBTQ older adults who have been alienated by their family of origin.

The ornate stone and brick building that now houses the Center on Halstead's senior center, the Center on Addison, is a renovated former police station that still bears the scars of discrimination against the Chicago-area gay community.

Just off the entrance, bricks on the lower half of the wall in the teaching kitchen and pantry are more faded than the upper portion of the wall. 

"This is where the holding cells used to be," said Senior Services Manager Todd Williams. 

These are the same holding cells where men that today come to the center and live in the building were held as young men—when they were arrested for the crime of being gay.

This stark reminder of the discrimination faced by the LGBTQ community helps inform the work at the Center on Addison in the North Halstead area of Chicago, formerly known as Boystown. NISC recently visited the Center on Addison for a tour and conversation with Williams and Director of Communications Steve Kauffman.

When and why was the Center on Addison established?

Though the Center on Halsted's building opened in 2007, their history goes back much further to 1973 when Gay Horizons began as a volunteer-run information clearinghouse—funded mostly by collections taken at bars—helping community members who were struggling. Almost 50 years later, the Center on Halsted has a long and proud legacy of advocacy, support, and education for the community, chronicled on their website, and is a beloved and valuable community center for LGBTQ people of all ages. An older adult program was established in 1997, and in 2012, the Center on Halsted acquired and renovated an adjacent building. In 2014 they opened the 4,800 square foot Center on Addison on the main floor, with the 79 unit Town Hall Apartments above.

Who goes to the Center on Addison?

The neighborhood and the Center on Halsted are well recognized as LGBTQ-centered, and the programs, activities, and services of the Center are geared to LGBTQ older adults. While the center is open to everyone, most of the participants are LGBTQ or allies. Participants include the residents of Town Hall Apartments and the immediate area but come from all over—the city, the suburbs, and even as far away as Indiana.

Unlike many senior centers, the participants are predominantly men—around 90% in fact. The center has tried to attract women with programs and services but has not yet been successful. This is a good reminder that the LGBTQ+ population is not a monolith. They have some shared experiences and issues, but their interests can be vastly different. 

Many of the center’s participants are economically insecure or need help managing their resources. A reality for many older LGBTQ individuals is that they do not have family support, because they were alienated by their family of origin, and they were less likely to have children. As they age, the senior center staff take on a surrogate family role, serving as emergency contacts and providing support.

What happens at the Center on Addison?

Like every senior center, the programs at the Center on Addision are driven by the needs and interests of the people—and Center on Addison knows its audience.

First and foremost, people come to the center because it is a safe, trusted place where older adults, especially those who are LGBTQ, can connect and get support.

This is a generation that came of age in a world where being gay was considered a mental illness and illegal. Creating community among each other comes naturally, and the center is an extension of that as they age together.

Food and assistance are at the heart of the center. As a meal site for Chicago’s Golden Diners Program, a boxed lunch to go is available every Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday. The center builds programs around food including an “Fork and Flick” program pairing dinner and a movie and popular group trips to Chinatown and the Baton Show Lounge, a premiere drag showcase. The marquee event of the year is Chicago PrideFest, a two-day event in North Halsted that includes a four-hour parade. The center’s building-length, second floor terrace is an ideal spot for watching the parade and celebrating.

The center provides support services including case management, information, and assistance, helping people navigate social and health systems and connecting people to a Benefits Counselor to identify and apply for various benefits programs like Medicaid and the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program. 

In addition to in-house programs like language classes, computer access, theater trips, parties, and art programs, the center partners with other organizations to provide access to programs and services. They work in partnership with the University of Chicago with nurses providing on-site screenings, and have yoga, meditation, falls prevention, and wellness classes.

The LGBTQ+ Intergenerational Dialogue Project, a partnership between The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Center on Addison at Center on Halsted, and the University of Illinois at Chicago, was created in 2019 and brings together racially, socioeconomically, and gender diverse cohorts of LGBTQ college students and older adults for year-long series of bi-weekly themed dialogues, creative work, and shared dinners. This program has produced powerful work, and it serves to not only bring generations together but to document and preserve the history of the LGBTQ community.

How did the COVID pandemic impact the Center on Addison?

With so many people relying on the Center for food, finding alternative ways to ensure that people had enough to eat was the priority at the beginning of the pandemic. Staff shopped, collected donations, and made peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. Over time, they established a temporary food pantry.  Some programs were offered virtually, including the Intergenerational Dialogue project. Technology access created a barrier for many participants.

What does modernizing mean to the Center on Addison?

Although the Center on Addison is relatively new, they recognize the need to continually innovate. Williams, the senior services manager, compared it to the experience of restaurants in the pandemic;  those that didn’t adapt with take out and delivery services closed. If the center continued to do the same things, it would become stale and wouldn’t last. Modernizing means progress and change to meet changing needs as defined by the people that they serve.

“It’s their world. We fit what they need,” Williams said.

What’s next for the Center on Addison?

The Center on Addison will continue to do what they do best: providing support and opportunities to LGBTQ older adults to improve their lives and age with dignity. They will continue focus on keeping it interesting and are looking at growing their liberal arts programs and addressing technology access, a need accelerated by the pandemic. More immediately, June is a big month at the Center on Addison, and they will be in full celebration mode. Happy PRIDE Month!

As Williams told the The LGBTQ+ Intergenerational Dialogue Project, “I strive to produce the very best alternative programming intended to challenge senior creativity and thinking, cultivate friendships, and, to prevent isolation.” 

Still not a member of the National Institute for Senior Centers? Join today, membership is free.

If your center has engaged in a recent study or assessment, we’d love to hear about it. And if you haven't already, we'd encourage you to join the National Institute of Senior Centers (NISC). Free to all senior centers (and their personnel), NISC supports senior centers with best practices and innovations in programming, as well as networking and training opportunities. Ask for help, leverage NISC resources, or share your successes like the Center on Addision. Find out how you can become a NISC Affiliate today.