How to Shelter Homeless Elders-One Agency's Answer

By Gothelf, Carole R.; Quinn, Gretchen et al. | Aging Today, November/December 2003 | Go to article overview

How to Shelter Homeless Elders-One Agency's Answer


Gothelf, Carole R., Quinn, Gretchen, Stepansky, Elazar, Aging Today


For homeless elders or those hanging onto a rented room, these are not "golden years." Growing numbers of older adults lose their homes because their limited, fixed incomes can't keep up with rising rents, escalating medical expenses and increasing food costs. These factors are compounded by an ever-decreasing supply of affordable housing, which makes older people particularly vulnerable to homelessness.

These realities are daunting, but nonprofit agencies have long been finding ways to reach out to homeless elders. One program begun 20 years ago by Dorot, a small community service agency in New York City, shows that service providers can take action without waiting for the government to shore up the tattered safety net.

UNSETTLING STATISTICS

The statistics are unsettling. In 2002, an average of 30% of emergency shelter requests went unmet and 60% of cities turned families away due to lack of beds, according to a 25-city survey by the U.S. Conference of Mayors. A Status Report on Hunger and Homelessness in America's Cities 2002, available online at http://usmayors.org, identified lack of affordable housing as the major cause of homelessness in 21 cities. (Other major reasons include mental health problems and substance abuse.) The study documented a 19% increase in homelessness (3.5 million people) in 2002, the steepest rise in a decade. Nearly 11% of low-income people become homeless each year.

Furthermore, the study found that of the 4.9 million households with worst-case housing needs, 1.5 million included older adults. "Worst-case housing needs" means household income is at or near the poverty line and people either pay more than half of their income in rent or live in severely substandard housing. Approximately 8% of homeless people are over 55. A person living near or below the poverty level at age 55 is likely to have the physical condition of a 65- to 70-year-old because of such factors as exposure, poor nutrition, inadequate healthcare and lack of needed services.

Behind the hard facts and statistics are older individuals who face the angst and insecurity of dislocation from home, elders who live in substandard housing, night shelters-or on the street. Meet "Ed" and look at the pathways that led him to homelessness.

Ed worked in Manhattan 's garment district for 35 years. After a heart attack, he had to stop working earlier than he'd planned. Within two years he developed renal failure and required dialysis three times per week. Ed's pension and Social Security disability paid $1,100 a month; his medications cost $400 each month. Before disability payments began, he could no longer afford the rent on his apartment and was forced to leave. Ed spent two years living with either his sister or his son, both of whom loved him but did not have enough room for him to stay permanently. According to Ed, he moved into New York City's shelter system "to not be a burden " on his family.

Now, meet "Raymond and Elisa."

Raymond and Elisa were born in Cuba, married in 1960, and came to the United States in 1966. Raymond began a 30-year career in restaurant work. Elisa worked in a clothing factory, then stayed home to raise their children. In 1979, they bought a home in Queens, N. Y., and in 1986 they completed a general-education diploma course. Elisa had a job as a driving instructor for seven years. The couple saved money and expected financial stability when they retired.

In 1994, Raymond and Elisa sold their house and moved to Florida; however, they knew few people there and missed their family. Soon after settling in Florida, Elisa became clinically depressed. Her extremely expensive medical care depleted their savings, and the pair soon moved back to New York. To give Elisa the best care, Raymond stayed home and began collecting his Social Security and pension. On this limited income, they could not afford a home. They lived with Raymond's sister for three years until their nephew moved back home and became abusive to them.

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