Senior homeless population growing at record pace

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Meet Iris –– she’s from Germany originally, and she’s been in the U.S. for 33 years. She doesn’t receive SSI benefits, and she’s been without a home since her place burned down in the 90s. She has been waiting to be placed in a home, but says she has given up on the system.

“I’ve been trying, but it seems like there is something keeping me,” she says from a wheelchair near a parking exit in an Emeryville shopping plaza, which she describes as a frequent spot for her to seek donations.

“It’s very difficult these days. I’m disabled, you know,” she says.

Iris, 64, is at the center of one of the fastest growing populations to experience homelessness – those 50 and over. Studies in California and across the nation indicate that this population of older adults to experience homelessness will likely continue to grow rapidly.

Margot Kushel, Director of the Benioff Homelessness and Housing Initiative at UC San Francisco (UCSF), says nearly half of single adults 50 and over experiencing homelessness had never been homeless before age 50.

Kushel’s study, Factors Associated with Mortality Among Homeless Older Adults in California (HOPE HOME Study),  shows much higher mortality risks for those homeless 50 and up compared to those who became homeless at a younger age. According to Kushel, the “life trajectories” among the diverging homeless age groups were usually quite different. Those homeless before 50 would often have highly traumatic childhoods and instability throughout their life, while those homeless at 50 and up typically had low-paying, physically demanding jobs where a significant “disruptive event” like an illness or death of a close family member left them homeless.

In his study Emerging Crises of Aged Homelessness, University of Pennsylvania professor Dennis Culhane says this significant growth, especially in those 65 and over, will continue nationwide through 2030.

“The largest increase is still coming,” he says.

California’s over-65 population is estimated to be four million people by 2030 when the baby boomer generation reaches retirement age, 87 percent higher than in 2012, according to the Public Policy Institute of California.

In Sacramento County alone, the California Department of Aging has projected there will be a 186 percent increase in the state’s 60 and over population between 2010-2060.

To date, approximately 272,000 people have been entered into California’s Homeless Data Integration System, a compiled data warehouse from 44 local homeless response programs. Of those, almost 39,000 were between 55-64 and approximately 16,000 were 65 and over.

But Sharon Rapport, Director of California State Policy for the Corporation for Supportive Housing, says it should be taken into account that the HDIS only tracks individuals who have accessed a homeless service system in some way and cannot account for those that don’t seek those services.

“I think we do have a lot of people in California who don’t seek shelter; they don’t want to access shelter because they may have had bad experiences in the past, and so they never seek shelter or any kind of services,” she says.

Rapport says it can take nine to 12 months on average to get somebody housed in California. She notes that an older adult facing homelessness will also often be in worse physical condition than someone at the same age who has been housed.

“Older adults…they experience lots of trauma, they rapidly age once they become homeless, they often have a lot of needs that are different than the needs of a younger person who is experiencing homelessness,” she says.

“Older adults…they experience lots of trauma, they rapidly age once they become homeless, they often have a lot of needs that are different than the needs of a younger person who is experiencing homelessness.”

She says older homeless individuals often face an array of other difficulties as well, including cognitive deficits, and are unable to perform regular activities of daily living like dressing, cooking, and cleaning, or could experience severe behavioral health conditions.

Advocacy groups further note the shortened life expectancy for those experiencing homelessness at a later age.

“The crisis of aging and homelessness is a well-documented phenomenon,” says Carter Hewgley, Director of Homeless Initiatives at United Way of Greater Los Angeles.

Hewgley says this is not just people experiencing homelessness for an extended time, but also people experiencing homelessness for the first time after age 50. Over half of the seniors in California are low-income, and more than 75 percent are rent-burdened.

“So if you’ve add all that up, it means that too many of our seniors are at the brink of not being able to age in place,” Hewgley says.  “We’re running out of time to respond to that unacceptable crisis.”

Hewgley says many currently homeless have already outlived their life expectancy as unhoused residents.

“The choice is clear that Californians have to make, which is that we can either continue to accept that our parents and grandparents are increasingly dying on the streets, or we can bring them inside and keep them safely housed,” he says.

According to Hewgley, housing is healthcare, and the two can’t be separated because healing is impossible without a place to heal.

“The number one thing we’ve got to do for people who have already outlived their life expectancy of folks who are unhoused is we’ve got to get them inside into safety,” Hewgley says.

Hewgley says many currently homeless have already outlived their life expectancy as unhoused residents.

According to Mari Castaldi, Senior Legislative Advocate at Housing California, a part of a state-wide coalition focused on addressing older adult homelessness, the coalitions were looking at multiple factors in addressing the needs of these individuals.

“We see in California that eight out of 10 extremely low-income older adults pay more than half of their monthly income for rent, which is one of the criteria for being at risk of homelessness,” Castaldi says.

Other considerations include the questions of institutionalization and how to connect those already experiencing homelessness to services, resources, and housing, with an eye toward solutions allowing people to “age in place” and “age in one’s community.” That would mean creating targeted housing and rental subsidy programs for older adults and those with disabilities.

“What we don’t want to see is all older adults who have disabilities to be put into really restrictive institutional settings,” said Castaldi.  “We want people to be able to age in their community, close to their family and loved ones.”

State Senator Anna Caballero, a member of the Senate Housing Committee, cites escalating housing prices as the biggest driver in the rising number of older people losing their housing. She says many have been gainfully employed for 30 to 40 years, but during their senior years, the rising cost of living has outpaced their ability to keep up with it.

In some instances, seniors were being asked to move when people were in their 70s and 80s where they’ve lived somewhere for 20 years or 25 years, she says.

“It’s really important to me how we treat people who have spent their whole life working, and then as they age find themselves abandoned and unable to navigate a system that they don’t understand,” says Caballero. “It really worries me.”

As for Iris, she says she has worked hard her whole life and has always had difficulty asking for help. And when she has, the resources she could find, such as food stamps, have never been quite enough. As for finding housing, Iris said she’s been trying but has not found any definitive answers. And without them, her future looks bleak.

“I can’t really afford to be living outside for a whole lot longer because of my physical condition,” she says. “Now I’ll go into dumpsters if I have to.”

Sarah Chung is an intern with Capitol Weekly. She is a graduate of the Columbia School of Journalism. 


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