A sorry fact that America is slowly facing is that many older people experience poverty and the symptoms of it: hunger, lack of proper medical care, and even the lack of appropriate shelter. Since there are now more senior citizens than there are children under the age of 5, as the large cohort of the Baby Boomer generation ages, it stands to reason that this population is having and will have its share of homeless people. It is a sad fact that, according to a report in the New York Times, more than 30% of America’s homeless people are age 50 and over. In this article, we will explore the problem and some solutions.
The Trend of America’s Older Homeless Population
The New York Times reports that cities like Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle, and Honolulu have seen such an increase in homelessness that some have declared a state of emergency or resorted to issuing laws that make sitting or lying down on sidewalks prohibited. Some cities have created special homeless tent zones. These measures haven’t made any real progress in solving the homelessness problem, however. The homeless may go elsewhere when driven away, but they will not go far. Most have no where else to go, nor do they have the resources to relocate. In fact the cities that have the highest homeless populations are also the cities that are encouraging gentrification. Gentrification is the process of a formerly undesirable area rising in real estate values, livability, and desirability through investment and higher taxes. Gentrification tends to drive out lower income people–like elderly people on limited or fixed incomes.
Another aspect to the trend of homeless older Americans is a failing government programs. The Supplemental Security Income (SSI) program for people who are disabled or for people who are not disabled but who fall into low income parameters only kicks in at age 65. Likewise, Medicare only offers eligibility to those 65 and older. There are also gaps in the veteran housing voucher program. In addition to these gaps in aid, a large portion of chronically homeless people haven’t worked enough in their lives to claim adequate Social Security benefits to live from. Especially sad is the fact that homelessness puts so much stress on the human body and psyche that many older homeless Americans never make it to age 65.
30% of America’s homeless people are age 50 and over.
Soup kitchens and social services provide temporary solutions. However, some programs offer more long-term solutions, and long-term solutions work best.
The Rapid Rehousing and Prevention Program (RRP) is one example. The RRP was birthed in Minnesota from Elim Baptist Church over 30 years ago. Program workers began working with HUD in 1987 and have since influenced the government program and have helped Minnesota have one of the lowest homeless populations in the nation. As this method has spread to other cities, the RRP has been acknowledged as a model to follow because of its success. The premise for the program builds upon Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. It focuses first on short term needs for food, safety, housing, water, and clothing before it looks to satisfy long-term needs, including love, belonging, and self-actualization. Yet in addition to rapidly addressing homelessness to get people off the streets immediately, RRP then helps develop each person’s special talents and to pursue their goals in life to promote self-sufficiency in the long run.
The permanent supportive housing federal program is subsidized housing for those with intense mental needs. There is also some permanent supportive housing available for those 62 years of ago or older. Yet need sometimes outruns the availability of such programs, and red tape sometimes intervenes in timely responses to the needs of the homeless.
At the same time, it has been found that permanent supportive housing (subsidized housing that includes services supportive to mental and physical health) may reduce the burden on emergency rooms and other public interventions. This helps offset the costs of permanent supportive housing programs. Portland, Maine, for example, has had great success with this type of program and in 2015, had only 111 chronically homeless people. It was such a nominal portion of the population that it registered 0%, according to the AHAR HUD report. The main reason for such a high rate of success is found in the annual cost savings associated with emergency room visits. When a person was given permanent supportive housing, there was an annual $1296 per person reduction in emergency room costs.
Such reductions in the need for health care are particularly important in the cases of the elderly homeless. If good housing reduces emergency room visits, it is even more important for the ailing elderly than for younger, healthier populations.
Habitat for Humanity has anecdotal evidence that good housing helps cut down on hospital and emergency room visits. A testimony on their website tells of a family that moved into a Habitat for Humanity house from an apartment with a leaky roof and moldy walls. In spite of previous chronic respiratory problems, the family had not been to the hospital even once since moving to their Habitat home. Although Habitat for Humanity does not currently provide housing on the basis of age alone, the group does offer building assistance with age-friendly features and important repairs for those aging in place.
Public and private efforts, working together and apart, can help ameliorate the problem of homeless elderly Americans. After all, a society is judged by how it treats its weakest members, and elderly people in need of homes are certainly one of the most vulnerable groups.
Habitat for Humanity. Habitat, the Magazine of Habitat for Humanity International. Available at http://www.habitat.org/magazine/article/everyone.
Last visited June 16, 2016.
Nagourney, Adam. (May 31, 2016). Old and on the Street: The Graying of America’s Homeless. The New York Times. Available at http://www.nytimes.com/2016/05/31/us/americas-aging-homeless-old-and-on-the-street.html. Last visited June 16, 2016.
National Alliance to End Homelessness. (2011). Helping Chronically Homeless People Avoid High Cost Health Care. Available at http://www.endhomelessness.org/library/entry/helping-chronically-homeless-people-avoid-high-cost-health-care. Last visited June 12, 2016.
Phillips, Sue W. (2010). Rapid Rehousing Manual. Available at http://www.nationalhomeless.org/publications/rapid_rehousing_10.pdf. Last visited June 12, 2016.
U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). (November 2015). The 2015 Annual Homeless Assessment Report (AHAR) to Congress. Available at https://www.hudexchange.info/resources/documents/2015-AHAR-Part-1.pdf. Last visited June 12, 2016.