Stefanie Clark knew it was a good roommate match when their first breakfast together in late 2017 was full of laughter.
It was a new feeling for Clark, who had recently shed the name Stephen and come out as the woman she'd felt she was her entire life. In recent months, she found herself confronting a new apartment, navigating a new life and feeling lonely.
A year later, Clark and Jane Callahan-Moore finish each other's sentences and interrupt conversations to compliment the other – she's a wonderful artist, her zest for life is so inspiring – and enjoy explaining who cooks breakfast and who makes dinner.
Loneliness is one reason elderly adults might seek help finding a roommate. Like Clark and Callahan-Moore, many people prefer to find each other through groups or websites that connect roommates, versus the more anonymous and sometimes overwhelming listings in places like Craigslist.
Websites like Roomster and SpareRoom expand options for people who want to rent a room or find a renter. A spokesman at Roomster.com said it has about 27,000 users in Illinois; a SpareRoom spokesman said about 29,000 users in Illinois have visited the site so far this year (SpareRoom tracks users' locations when they browse the site, but they could be seeking a room in a different state).
Similar to some dating apps, Roommates.com, which has nearly 2,000 users in Illinois, requires users to fill out questionnaires and connects them to others seeking the same location and cost. Communication can go through the site instead of personal contact information.
"It gives you a safety net because you can actually talk to these people. You can contact them through the website and find out about them," said Vice President of Business Development Mike Peters.
The site is free to join; once users receive matches, they can pay $5.99 to connect with those matches for three days. "Amazingly, people find a match in three days," he said. The site also offers one- and two-month options.
Clark and Callahan-Moore met through the Homesharing Program at the Center on Halsted, which since 2011 has connected people looking for renters or a room. Britta Larson, senior services director and the program's coordinator, said it made about five matches last year.
The program launched as a solution for older LGBTQ adults who might appreciate a person comfortable with an LGBTQ roommate. Most of the people offering rooms to rent are 55 and older, Larson said, and the renters vary in age, as young as people in their 20s but tend to be middle-aged, usually in their 40s.
The Center of Halsted program was modeled after two other programs in Illinois which no longer exist. As more people find roommates online, she said, there are fewer requests for these types of services.
"We're really one of the last home-sharing programs out there, but we're not actively promoting and advertising the program simply because it's very labor-intensive," she said.
Roommates Stefanie Clark, left and Jane Callahan-Moore on Oct. 14, 2018 in their Edgewater home. (Brian Cassella/Chicago Tribune)
Without funding, she said, it's hard to invest the time needed to make successful matches. Beyond taking applications and managing connections, she also coordinates background checks and acts as an intermediary for any concerns. Callahan-Moore noted she didn't even know Clark's full name until they signed the lease, to assure confidentiality. "She put me through my paces," she said.
Many older adults, Callahan-Moore added, might be in the same situation she found herself in: "dying of loneliness."
"They have these gorgeous apartments, and they're terrified of letting anyone come in and live, because they're afraid of getting an ax murderer, or somebody's going to take all of their money," she said.
Previously, Callahan-Moore was living with her daughter. Not wanting to continue that arrangement, but also not wanting to live alone, she looked up the National Shared Housing Resource Center and eventually found her way to the Center on Halsted, Britta and the Homesharing Program.
The new roommates navigated common situations; coordinating times to shower, setting boundaries around sex in the home (specifically, that there would be none).
Clark, 73, and Callahan-Moore, 69, are a success story, Larson said, but not all matches work out.
"Becoming friends and really hitting it off and having a lovely experience – the reality is that's not guaranteed in this program, no matter how much screening we do. Things don't work out for a million different reasons," Larson said. "You're at the intersection of people's finances and people's housing, and those are difficult waters to navigate."
Some renters have extravagant expectations. Larson remembers one person who "wanted the world's most perfect arrangement for $500. 'I want parking, I want my own bathroom, I want it quiet, I want it clean, I don't want the person to be home that much.' The reality is that's like impossible."
Sometimes, renters offer to do chores in exchange for reduced rent, but such an arrangement can create tension around how often and how well duties are completed. "Your definition of clean might be different from my version of clean," Larson said.
Clark, who is retired but very busy as an Art Institute of Chicago greeter and speaker on LGBTQ issues, first considered a roommate after purchasing her Edgewater condo. But it wasn't a quick decision; she didn't really need the rental income, and it felt important to find the right person – someone comfortable with her and enjoyable to be around but also respectful of time alone.
After Clark met two men she did not feel were comfortable with her, Larson introduced her to Callahan-Moore. Following an application process, Callahan-Moore came over to see the apartment, with Larson as intermediary.
"I was extremely impressed with the space," Callahan-Moore said, noting the expansive windows that show the rippling waves of Lake Michigan. "Who wouldn't be?"
She also immediately connected with Clark. "I felt immediately safe, immediately welcome."
Since that first breakfast, only the seasons have changed – during the summer, they eat breakfast on the balcony by the lake and dinner on the balcony overlooking miles of trees. When Callahan-Moore was waking up at 4 a.m. to begin long days as a mental health coordinator, Clark made her "amazing breakfasts" of poached eggs, hollandaise sauce and fresh fruit. They are plotting hosting a salon centered on classical music; Callahan-Moore is helping Clark expand her piano skills.
"We laugh constantly," Callahan-Moore said.
Clark echoed her roommate's sentiments: "Within one month, she made my house a home."