Growing Old Homeless

The number of seniors experiencing homelessness is growing in the U.S.

Some of the seniors are aging into the cohort. They have been chronically homeless and are simply getting older, still unable to access adequate resources to become rehoused.

Others are experiencing homelessness for the first time, due to economic factors. As they retire, they are simply priced out of the housing markets in the cities they live in.

This second group tends to be more vulnerable on the streets and in shelters due to a lack of exposure to the often harsh conditions people encounter there.

Some estimates put the number of seniors in shelters in the US at just under 50,000. This number is projected to climb to 59,000 in 2020 and 95,000 by 2050. This trend can be explained by the fact that as the US population is growing older, more people are facing economic hardship associated with retirement.

Statistical reports for 2008 showed that 969,000 seniors over 65 were living in deep poverty in the US.

According to analysis by the National Women's Law Center, the nationwide rate of deep poverty for men over 65 increased 23% between 2011 and 2012 and climbed 18% for women. This means that 442,000 elderly men and 733,000 women were living in deep poverty in 2012 and that the number of seniors living in deep poverty actually grew by 206,000 between 2008 and 2012.

In many urban centers, the cost of housing has increased significantly since the turn of the century but retirement income has not followed the same trajectory.

Seniors who experience homelessness also tend to become more dependent on shelter resources. A survey showed that people age 51 and up make up 30% of residents who stay in shelters for 180 days or more.

This observation points to the fact that the services the system offers these seniors are not effective.

We urgently need to reconsider our outlook on senior homelessness. The status quo has seniors receiving the same services as younger and more resilient people for the most part.

This is simply inadequate.

As a group, seniors often demonstrate a higher level of vulnerability in different areas like health and cognitive functions.

It makes sense then to develop approaches that will allow us to engage them more effectively.

Senior-specific programming needs to be compassionate and trauma-informed. It also needs to be empowering and to let seniors make choices that are right for them based on their own situations.

It should include person-centered street outreach, housing first, specialized case management provided by cross-trained staff, and adequate medical and psychiatric services.

Some groups are also looking at senior employment as the way to help seniors out of homelessness. For those who are still able to work, part-time employment, supplementing retirement income, can be enough to get somebody back into housing, especially if the first month's rent and security deposit can be offered with no obligation to repay the amount.

The community needs to look at senior homelessness for what it is, completely unacceptable, and mobilize to end it.

We are well on our way to end veteran homelessness. Let's use the practices the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and service providers all over the country have used to get to this point and apply them to end senior homelessness everywhere in the U.S.