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The Aging Homeless Population Brings Unique Challenges

The staggering truth about the growing number of homeless adults

Homelessness was one of the issues senior advocates, policymakers, and senior service providers discussed at the 2017 Bay Area Senior Health Policy Forum (SHPF), a one-day conference held on December 6th and co-hosted by CEI and On Lok. As published in The Gerontologist (February 26, 2016), researchers found that half of homeless adults are now 50 and older, compared to 11 percent almost 30 years ago. Again, 50% of homeless adults are over 50!

50% of homeless adults are over 50! *Image: fugetaboutit.net

 Age as a factor

Interestingly, 44% of older homeless adults have never once been homeless before the age of fifty, meaning they are becoming homeless later in life and don’t have a history of being on the streets. The aging homeless often have no close-by family or don’t want to strain their resources. In some cases, they lived check to check and a crisis wiped out their resources or they lost their housing and had nowhere to go. Laura Fanucchi, the Associate Executive Director of HIP Housing, said one of the participants was too proud to ask for help; “I won’t take food out of my grandbaby’s mouth.” Fanucchi stressed that proper outreach can find and help more people who need assistance.

HIP Housing matches housemates that are sometimes on fixed incomes or have health problems and can benefit from living together. Although HIP Housing services are specific to San Mateo County residents, other counties and states would benefit from researching nearby programs, to find what works, and then find ways to adapt programs to address the needs of their own counties.

Dr. Margot Kushel, UCSF professor of Medicine, physician from Zuckerberg SF General Hospital, and senior author of the article in The Gerontologist mentioned above, shared these cold, hard statistics: “In San Francisco, 6% of the population is African American, yet they are 30% of the homeless population. In Oakland, 28% of the population is African American yet they make up 80% of the homeless population.” Seeing these statistics brings home the fact that not only are the homeless getting older but, more and more, they are people.

 

Encampments are popping up everywhere in the Bay Area, especially under freeways and overpasses.

What contributes to homelessness for adults over 50?

Many factors have contributed to mature adults becoming homeless, including but not limited to: the defunding of affordable housing, rising rents with unmatched wages, racial discrimination, and the decline of the economy.

In 2017, an AARP survey of adults age 36-70 revealed that many Californians remain unprepared financially for retirement. AARP also found that the primary obstacle to saving money was housing related costs. People are spending more on rent – more than half or near half of their income – which leaves very little money for other necessities. According to Dr. Kushel, that means these families are “one small crisis away from losing housing.”

 

Some contributing factors to mature adults becoming homeless are: the defunding of affordable housing, rising rents with unmatched wages, racial discrimination, and the decline of the economy.

How do we make plausible changes?

In a 2014 Joint Center for Housing Studies of Harvard University report, the research revealed that the nation is “not prepared to meet the housing needs of this aging group,” and when you look at the current and projected numbers, you can see why. The demand to end homelessness remains strong, based on the response from those at the Senior Health Policy Forum. However, if we want to begin to lower the numbers of older homeless adults, we need solutions.

Dr. Kushel says, “The traditional way of providing services for homeless people may need to be adapted for the aging population, who may need assistance with activities like using the toilet and are at high risk of falling.” In addition, Samantha Green, MSc, from Applied Survey Research said during the Homelessness session, “We need to think of culturally and age-appropriate solutions as we design our system of care.”

One solution broached was basic: people need to vote and involve themselves in advocating for seniors. Speakers at the Senior Health Policy Forum discussed specific solutions in detail and agreed that voting for policy changes to aid the building of low-income and affordable housing is the biggest way to contribute to changing laws. Other solutions included co-sharing existing housing/property, legally building housing on existing property, and building tiny houses. All the solutions had one thing in common

We hope that events like the 2017 Senior Health Policy Forum will continue the move conversations towards age-appropriate solutions so elders in our communities can rest assured they will be cared for and allowed to age gracefully, with dignity and respect.

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