Catholic New World: Newspaper for the Archdiocese of Chicago

The InterVIEW

Housing plus compassion provided for seniors

Michael Cahill

A regular feature of The Catholic New World, The InterVIEW is an in-depth conversation with a person whose words, actions or ideas affect today's Catholic. It may be affirming of faith or confrontational. But it will always be stimulating.

Elaine Layden doesn’t get as many hugs as she used to. Now senior director of property management for Catholic Charities Housing Development Corp., Layden started at Catholic Charities as property manager for the then-new Frances Manor senior housing development 10 years ago. Then she moved to the larger Bernardin Manor. She misses the daily contact with residents, she says, but also enjoys the administrative aspects of the job. In her time with the agency, it has gone from housing 400 seniors to more than 1,300 in 18 buildings. All of the apartments are offered to people over age 62 who can live independently and meet income guidelines. Rent is subsidized by the Department of Housing and Urban Development, with each resident paying 30 percent of his or her income.

She talked about Catholic Charities senior housing with assistant editor Michelle Martin

The Catholic New World: What does Catholic Charities Housing Development Corp. do?

Elaine Layden: We aim to affirm human dignity by providing affordable housing in caring communities. We like to think we’re a little different from public housing.

The message I like to get out a lot is what our housing is. We call it affordable sometimes, but it’s subsidized housing. A lot of people like to stay away from that name because it has connotations of being for poor people, of being slums, of being rundown, of being in bad neighborhoods, and that’s not what we are about. It’s for any person who meets the income criteria, which for one person is $26,400 a year.

My mother lives in subsidized housing. You retire and you make about $1,200 a month in Social Security if you’re lucky. That’s not bad income— it’s certainly not poverty level—but they can’t afford $600 and $700 a month in rent.

It’s not just for the very poor. You can own property, you can have money in the bank. As you do with nursing homes, you don’t have to spend down everything to qualify.

In subsidized housing, your assets are not counted, only your income. That’s a message I like to get across. First of all, you can have savings accounts and CDs. Your interest is what, 3 ½ to 4 percent? Only if that put you over the income level, you wouldn’t qualify. You can own a house—a lot of people come to us because they just can’t keep the house up anymore.

TCNW: How is it different from public housing?

EL: We don’t just provide housing. We provide community. Our goal is to establish a community of neighbors who care for each other, who look after each other. We don’t provide services—but we provide a service coordinator. The service coordinator can hook them up with maybe a homemaker or Meals on Wheels or other services that they may be eligible for. It’s a referral relationship. It’s a facilitator. With my mom, she didn’t know some of these things were available to her until she moved to subsidized housing and she got matched up and found out some of the things she could qualify for.

We’re different just because of the “compassionate” component. We want the residents to age in place comfortably. We look after them a little bit. Sometimes it gets to be a bother to some of the residents.

We tell them when they move in that occasionally, we’re going to knock on your door. Or we’ll say, I haven’t seen you in a week. Are you OK? Some of the buildings have “I’m OK” tags on their doors so that the residents can check on each other. It depends upon the community. They have resident councils, so some of the resident councils will have floor captains and institute programs like that. Occasionally, somebody will say, “That’s a little bit in my face. I’m an independent senior. I’m 64 years old. I don’t need anybody knocking on my door.”

We have some young seniors. Some of them work. Some of them have big families. Some of them go on trips, and we ask that they let us know when they’ll be gone so we don’t worry about the mail piling up or the fact that the neighbors haven’t heard them or seen them.

TCNW: How do you work it out when people don’t want to be bothered?

EL: We try to be as subtle as possible, and we try to tell them up front what they’re getting into. It’s subsidized housing, and it’s a privilege. We have house rules. You can’t have unlimited sleepovers. You can’t have your son move in for five months because he’s homeless or divorced or whatever just recently happened in his family. Everybody who lives in the building has to qualify, and their income has to be reported. So if your son would move in, his income would have to be reported, and your rent would go up. Quite frankly, they probably wouldn’t qualify. Under special circumstances, a grandchild or someone might move in, but that isn’t standard.

We’ve had people move out because they’ve had seven children and 25 grandchildren, and you can’t have three or four sleepovers a week. You can’t maintain two residences. You can’t have a house in Florida and live there during the winter. HUD has very strict rules about that.

We take security very seriously. We don’t want our seniors taken advantage of by vendors who happen to walk in and want to go door-to-door, selling whatever.

CNW: How do you take all kinds of people and form a community?

EL: It’s extremely interesting watching a building start. Bernardin Manor is my favorite; I opened that building and there are 180 residents from all walks of life and all religions, all of a sudden living in close community. It gets a little crazy the first year as people are trying to find soul mates and a niche and in the meantime they are confronted with people who they’ve never been confronted with before.

A freshman dorm was all I could think of when I opened Frances Manor, the first building I opened. They had every ethnicity imaginable there and it was fun to watch the year go by. I’d suddenly come downstairs and see people who couldn’t even communicate a year earlier sitting and laughing together. It took a lot of work—and encouragement and role modeling.

That was the thing that really made an impression on me. It was my first time in housing, and it impressed me that every time I walked out of my office, I had to represent what Catholic Charities stands for and what it’s all about. I couldn’t demonstrate any favoritism; if I was going to hug one resident because she looked like my grandmother, then I’d better be willing to hug every other resident. There are some residents who can be more difficult to hug than others.

CNW: Why is housing for seniors part of Catholic Charities’ mission?

EL: It’s fulfilling a need of a group of people who are on the fringes, so to speak. They don’t necessarily fit in financially to the world that they’re in, whether they can’t afford the rent or they can’t afford the upkeep on their home or they are suddenly left alone. It is a stopgap before homelessness in many cases. We have truly had a lot of seniors who were on the verge of homelessness. Maybe they made some bad decisions. We have seniors who had planned maybe not so well, or who were victims of elder abuse.

Seniors are a group that have some needs, but they are quiet. So they don’t attract attention like some younger people do. This allows them to age in place with some security, and develop social relationships and to show themselves that they can grow.