Rising rents leave LGBTQ+ recovery groups searching for permanent home
Down a North Park back alley and through a purple door, a dozen people meet around a rainbow Christmas tree. Music from Auntie Helen’s thrift store filters through the wall. Over the muted sounds of '80s R&B, they talk addiction and recovery, struggle and hope.
It’s a temporary shelter for meetings that need a permanent home.
Most people present are former members of the Live and Let Live Alano Club recovery center in Hillcrest, a prominent LGBTQ+ neighborhood. Most are LGBTQ+ themselves, though the meetings aren’t exclusive.
“It was safe. I was able to be myself,” Michael Hoover said of his time there. “I was able to speak freely and openly about my addiction problems and the fact that I am a gay person.”
Hoover said that often wasn’t the case in heteronormative recovery groups. Another former member, Alexis Gabrielle, echoed this.
“Sometimes when we walk the streets of San Diego, we do see the people on the side of the street that are down and out,” she said. “I was one of those people.”
She found Live and Let Live a few years ago.
“I was able to find a safe place when I was feeling uncomfortable,” she said. “And, by doing so, I was able to work on myself very deep.”
“I call it my 911,” she said.
911 — a lifesaver. Many former members said the same, that Live and Let Live was often the only thing standing between them and using again or harming themselves.
It was open all day, with a wide range of recovery meetings, not just for substance use.
Someone could walk into the lobby and count on a volunteer or other participant to approach them and talk. If they needed, they could linger there all day, or sit through back-to-back recovery meetings.
It also allowed people in court-mandated programs to more easily meet their quota for meetings.
Now wearing a sparkling gown and crown, Alexis Gabrielle said she learned a vital lesson in those meetings: “that we can rise from where we were before without shame and hold our heads high.”
She even started a show night there to offer much-needed alcohol-free entertainment. She was nervous about how she would be perceived, she said, but was surprised to find that people loved it.
Then the doors closed.
Live and Let Live didn’t own the building. San Diego rents were skyrocketing, compounding already existing financial trouble. After nearly four decades, Live and Let Live closed last fall.
The dozens of groups that Live and Let Live hosted scattered throughout the city to locations that weren’t as well-suited to the participants.
Many said the downtown locations triggered their urge to use again. Churches carried baggage for people to whom religion had not been kind.
And, though Live and Let Live had been easy to access, many now have to take buses or walk long distances to get to meetings.
It doesn’t always feel safe, they said. Especially with recent anti-LGBTQ+ legislation across the country.
“I’m personally tired of always having to look behind my back, over my shoulder, on buses and walking,” Hoover said.
He said meeting attendance dropped sharply after the Alano Club closed. He moved back to San Diego in August, and was shocked to find what used to be meetings with dozens of participants new and veteran had dwindled to just a handful.
“Since the demise of Live and Let Live, they’ve all dispersed and they’ve gone away,” he said. “And those anchors for the newcomers and each other as old-timers are gone.”
“I myself felt like all my friends are gone and I have to start over and make new friends,” Alexis Gabrielle said.
Auntie Helen’s stepped up.
It used to be a laundry service for people living with HIV/AIDS at a time when many refused to even touch their clothing. It has offered support to San Diego’s LGBTQ+ people for decades.
Management allowed some of the displaced recovery groups to clear out the back room and move in 50 chairs and a podium.
But the space closes as soon as the meetings end. It doesn’t offer the same anytime safety net of an Alano Club.
That’s why participant Heather Paetow is now searching for a permanent home.
“I am actually one of the unusual people who doesn't do the pronoun thing because I did 20 years in the military, where I actually had to use they/them/their and things to kind of disguise my relationship,” Paetow said. “So it's sort of like an uncomfortable thing.”
As a military member, Paetow didn’t feel safe to enter San Diego’s LGBT Community Center. Paetow worried about who might identify cars in the parking lot. But Paetow did feel safe to attend Live and Let Live, where the association with LGBTQ+ people was maybe less obvious to outside observers.
Paetow attended Al-Anon meetings for friends and family members of alcoholics. There, Paetow could be rigorously honest — one of the core tenets of recovery.
Paetow and Paetow’s partner, Julia Nava, just launched a nonprofit. They hope to own a building to once again offer a recovery center geared toward LGBTQ+ people.
Owning, they said, is key. They can’t risk displacement again.
They plan to name it the Lambda Uptown Alano Club — Lambda as a nod to the symbol of gay and lesbian rights, Uptown as the intended location.
“With all the high-rises that have been built in the Hillcrest area, a lot of the LGBT community has migrated more toward North Park,” Paetow said.
So Paetow and Nava are opening their search area to anywhere north of Balboa Park, south of the 8 freeway, and in between Interstates 5 and 805.
The high-rises, some said, are part of the barrier; what used to be affordable spaces for a nonprofit like an Alano Club are being redeveloped into dense housing.
Paetow and Nava said they’d asked local leaders about unused government buildings, but haven’t heard back.
They hope that the proposal would appeal to the city and county as a low-cost way to address homelessness.
LGBTQ+ youth are more likely to become unhoused — often after family kicks them out for their gender or sexuality. Substance recovery is a vital component of helping many obtain housing. And Alano Clubs are fairly inexpensive to run aside from the space cost, they said. They bring in donations and member dues and are operated by volunteers.
They said Live and Let Live will transfer their remaining earmarked donations to the effort, and they’re fundraising, but they are hoping that someone will offer land or a building at no or low cost.
Ideally it would permit at least 100-125 people at once, with space for two separate rooms. And, of course, participants said wryly, a coffee bar.
“The main thing is to make a place where we can help each other and show unconditional love and lift each other up when we feel that no one else cares,” Alexis Gabrielle said.
“A lot of homophobia out there,” Hoover said. “And transphobia. And it's sad because it inhibits a person's right to just live and exist, which is the basic human right. And I think, by acquiring our own space, it'll enable people to blossom”
Members said they would need support from the broader community, including heterosexual and cisgender people, to meet the need. They hope that empathy and outreach can overcome what might be a blind spot.
“When we walk into a space that is part of our community,” participant David Kozich said, “it makes us feel safe from something those who don't ever feel unsafe aren't going to understand.”
Auntie Helen’s owner told KPBS that, after 36 years, rising rent is forcing the space to close, too, on Dec. 31.
He said he negotiated for the groups to have continued use of the back room.
Participant RJ Santos urged people to continue attending meetings despite the turbulence.
“We're still here,” he said. “We're still showing up the best we can.”
LGBTQ+ recovery participants said that, no matter what, they will find a way to do what they’ve always done: persist.