Dr. Karyn Skultety recently took the helm of Openhouse as its new Executive Director. She took time out of her hectic schedule to share what is happening now at the agency, and what the plans are for its future.
San Francisco Bay Times: Tell us a little bit about you and your history prior to coming to Openhouse.
Karyn Skultety: I’m a Colorado native who ventured to the East Coast for college and graduate school. I never quite kept up with the East Coast pace, so I headed back west to finish my degree in geriatric psychology at the VA Palo Alto Healthcare System. Over the years, I went from providing clinical services to thinking broadly about how we can provide innovative services, strong advocacy and support to people as they age. Prior to coming to Openhouse, I worked at the Institute on Aging for 9 years, a fellow non-profit partner in aging services.
Outside of work, my life is busy! My wife Sarah and I will celebrate our 10th anniversary this year, and we have two amazing kids: Quinn, age 7, and Nova, age 3. We live in Noe Valley, where we spend time drinking as much coffee as we can to help us keep up with the kids and our two dogs: Monty and Oreo, both adopted from Muttville!
San Francisco Bay Times: How did your previous work experience prepare you for this job?
Karyn Skultety: My career has been dedicated to serving seniors because I truly admire their wisdom and strength. I always saw my job as a geriatric psychologist as part advocate and part helper. The truth is that I was probably helped as much as my clients were. My goal was to advocate for what people needed and wanted in their lives, while helping the individual and those around them to recognize the strengths they had to meet those needs. Typically, the greatest want for aging individuals is to stay at home, no matter what changes your life brings. As I moved away from direct service and had the opportunity to create programs, I felt drawn to opportunities that supported the goal to remain at home and to utilize your strengths while finding out what you needed to stay there. My work at the Institute on Aging centered around that goal, and that is the true mission of Openhouse—through not just LGBT welcoming housing, but services and community building for every LGBT elder.
San Francisco Bay Times: Talk about your experience in meeting and working with Dr. Marcy Adelman. It must be very exciting to have an opportunity to work with the Co-Founder of Openhouse at this time.
Karyn Skultety: I told Marcy the first time that we really sat down and talked that, no matter what we accomplish in the future at Openhouse, I will never be as brave as she was when she founded Openhouse. The truth is that to even say the words “LGBT welcoming housing” was a moment of activism 20 years ago. Then to add to that a commitment to senior and to affordable housing in this city is beyond visionary. And to withstand setbacks, changes and challenges over 20 years … well, that’s just courage and strength. I’ve loved getting to know Marcy and feel so fortunate that I will continue to benefit from her wisdom, advice and great sense of humor for a long time to come.
I think what is also really important to recognize when you look at 55 Laguna is that it is the work of thousands of people—activism and community organizing at its very best. Staff, board members and community activists working alongside of politicians, city officials, bankers to make sure this actually happened. Marcy says it best when she says, “This isn’t about one group … this is about all of us.” I’m surrounded by people that I need to learn from, and to guide the way for Openhouse going forward. My job is to harness the strength and ideas the community already has and put them into action.
San Francisco Bay Times: Openhouse has robust housing counseling programs. Why is this important to the agency?
Karyn Skultety: Openhouse is an advocate for LGBT seniors trying to find or change housing. As excited as we are to be a part of 40 units at 55 Laguna, and soon an additional 79 units at 95 Laguna, we know that this is not nearly enough to meet the needs or demand in San Francisco. It’s not even a drop in the bucket, really, when you look at the demand. We have to do more. We try to be a place of comfort and hope in what is a very challenging housing environment, especially for the many seniors we meet with who are in danger of losing housing or facing eviction. It’s critical for Openhouse to be providing this service because we know that of the LGBT seniors looking for housing, over 40% don’t feel comfortable using housing assistance programs. At weekly housing workshops, Openhouse provides education for seniors and aging service providers about housing options, eligibility requirements, and strategies to help them navigate the often energy draining experience of applying for housing. After attending our workshops, staff meet individually with each senior to assist individuals in completing applications, refer them to additional resources and improve their chances of success through financial coaching, debt-management, and budgeting. In addition, seniors who are looking for housing are added to our housing communication list, where we provide the most up to date information on affordable housing options immediately when they become available.
San Francisco Bay Times: How will the new building at 95 Laguna be different or not?
Karyn Skultety: The new building will be much larger, with 79 units available and a much larger program space for Openhouse (almost 8000 square feet). The program space will allow us to serve a larger number of people in the community and expand our services to address needs that are not currently being met. With 119 of housing units in total, we will become one of the largest LGBT Affordable senior housing projects in the nation. Openhouse will be a model in terms of integrated services, community and housing for LGBT elders.
San Francisco Bay Times: Openhouse is a community-based organization that was built from the ground up, a grassroots organization founded by two women. What makes Openhouse’s project unique among other LGBT senior projects is their vision of citywide LGBT welcoming services to help all LGBT seniors remain in their homes and in their communities. How does 55 Laguna reflect this vision?
Karyn Skultety: As I have talked to residents, they have really been able to best put this into words. One said to me, “It’s like waking up every day in a dream. I live in a place that welcomes me home and I’m never alone because my Openhouse family is right next door.” Achieving LGBT Senior affordable housing is an amazing feat, but to have founders who understood that feeling shows true innovation, empathy and respect for our seniors. Our work is only beginning and only ends when every LGBT senior can say they feel at home.
I think this building (the Openhouse Community at 55 Laguna and the Bob Ross LGBT Senior Center at 65 Laguna) will always serve as an amazing symbol of our values and mission. Here is a 96-year-old building that literally had been ignored and forgotten—beautiful murals painted over, walls crumbling and the restoration work brought it back to show off the core beauty. The beauty wasn’t something new; it had always been there. It’s just that people had stopped looking and noticing because of its age. That is our job and our mission, to look at our LGBT elders and have the world notice the individuality, beauty and wisdom that comes with age and with a lifetime of being out as who you truly are.