Finnish-American couple brought together by Tom of Finland struggle for accessible housing


By Anna Vanninen

“Home is the best place to be. Now I understand Tom’s situation. He wanted to be at home and I would like to be now, but I don’t have the possibility.”
When Kenneth and Allison Wickman say “Tom” they are referring to artist Touko Laaksonen, alias Tom of Finland. From beyond the grave, Tom, an illustrator, and a major influence on gay culture, has brought the couple together from opposite sides of the world.
Now the two have been literally stuck in their apartment in the Ullanlinna district of Helsinki. Kenneth Wickman, who suffers from multiple sclerosis, and Allison, who serves as his personal assistant, spend their days in an undersized flat, waiting for Kenneth’s shower service to arrive, and calling various offices.
“Occasionally Kenneth has to check into a hospital so that I can recuperate. My back can’t take lifting him up all the time”, Allison Wickman says.

Meanwhile the City of Helsinki has stated that its goal is to increase assisted living and reduce hospitalisation of those with chronic disabilities.
However, the Wickmans have fallen outside all categories. Kenneth Wickman is too young for some of the accessible housing, and he is too mobile for some of the others.
Their story is out of the ordinary in other ways as well.

It all started in Helsinki in 1990 when Kenneth Wickman ran into a foreign man in what was Helsinki’s only gay bar at the time. The man said that he had come from the United States to meet his friend, an old and ailing man, whose household assistant had just moved out.
Wickman offered to help.
“I would visit Tom of Finland in the afternoons to help him with his shopping and making coffee for him. In the evenings I worked in the leather bar”, Wickman laughs.

Touko Laaksonen died on November 7th, 1991. Exactly 18 years later Wickman was checking the Facebook site of the US Tom of Finland Foundation, and saw a picture of a woman with whom he fell in love immediately.
The woman, Allison Schulte, who financed her studies as a fetish model, was doing volunteer work at the Tom of Finland Foundation Museum.
She made note of a comment posted by Kenneth Wickman, in which he said that he knows the founder of the Foundation, Durk Dehner.

Dehner told Schulte how he had recruited Wickman to work as Tom of Finland’s assistant in the last years of the artist’s life.
The two started to communicate via the internet, and after three months exchanging messages, Kenneth Wickman flew to Los Angeles.
After a week and a half he proposed. Allison Schulte did not hesitate to move to the home country of her fiancé.

Moving to Finland was the sensible choice. Kenneth Wickman, who was diagnosed with MS in 1999, was wheelchair-bound already when the two met.
“The health care system is so good here. In the United States we would not have been able to afford Kenneth’s treatment and equipment”, Allison Wickman explains.
However, their small apartment in Ullanlinna proved to be a problem.

Kenneth Wickman cannot fit inside the small toilet or the kitchenette of the two-room apartment with his wheelchair.
“I am more helpless here than what I really am. I take a taxi for the disabled to have a shower once a week. I have to use nappies because I simply will not fit in the toilet”, he says.
In an obstacle-free apartment he would be able to function on his own during the day.
“Now I can’t study the language or seek work that would correspond to my education”, says Allison Wickman, who has studied art history, and is a qualified librarian.

The love that the two share has already transcended Kenneth’s illness, their language barrier, and the Atlantic Ocean. Now all that is left is Helsinki’s Social Services Department.
It seems that it is next to impossible to get an accessible home.
“We have had people from social services come here and tell us that the apartment is not appropriate for me”, Kenneth Wickman says.

The Social Services solution has been to have him check into a hospital now and then so that his wife might get a respite.
“There is no sense to this. We have just got married and we simply want to be together. We can’t even sleep next to each other.”
Allison Wickman sleeps in the loft of their small apartment and her husband sleeps on the sofa, because the apartment will not fit both a double bed and a wheelchair.

Helsingin Sanomat / First published in print 31.07.2011

HAPPY END UPDATE: After the original article was written the Wickmans were informed that they will be getting a new accessible apartment in a building of the Housing and Assistance Association of Ruoholahti. They will be moving to their more spacious dwelling soon.