Academic journal article Canadian Review of Social Policy

Homelessness among Older People: Assessing Strategies and Frameworks across Canada

Academic journal article Canadian Review of Social Policy

Homelessness among Older People: Assessing Strategies and Frameworks across Canada

Article excerpt

Introduction

The number of older people who are homeless is expected to rise as a result of population aging (see Edmonston & Fong, 2011), and the compounded impacts of poverty, inequality, and rising housing costs in Canada and elsewhere (Crane & Warnes, 2010; Culhane, Metraux, Byrne, Stino, & Bainbridge, 2013). Where in some cases, the phenomenon of older homelessness means that people are 'growing old on the streets', in others, it means falling into homelessness for the first time in later life. Although recent homeless counts in Toronto and Montreal draw attention to the shifting age structure of the homeless population, a significant gap exists where the knowledge and response to homelessness among older people is concerned. Where current strategies and initiatives to end homelessness in Canada include youth, women, Indigenous people, and members of LGBTQ communities, there is less attention to the subpopulation of people aged 50+ (Burns, Grenier, Lavoie, Rothwell, & Sussman, 2012). This article reports the results of a survey of 42 local, provincial, and federal Canadian planning documents on homelessness conducted between January and August 2014 (Barken, Grenier, Budd, Sussman, Rothwell, & Bourgeois-Guérin, 2015). Our review addressed the question: "to what extent do strategies recognize, target, and suggest responses for older people who are homeless?"

In this article, we define the boundaries for homelessness among older people, discuss the prevalence and unique needs of older homeless people, and outline why concern for this growing subgroup is important. We then outline the methodology and results of a qualitative review of Canadian strategies on homelessness. Findings demonstrate the relative invisibility of aging in most strategies, as well as a general lack of direction on how to meet the needs of older people. We discuss variations that exist among extant strategies and highlight the plans that do consider older people's needs. We conclude with a call to include older people in plans to end homelessness, and the need for a cross-Canada discussion about the needs that occur at the intersections of income, housing, and support for older people who are homeless or at risk of becoming so.

Context: Older Homelessness in Canada

There is a small but emerging literature on homelessness among older people, but what does 'older' mean in the context of homelessness? Chronological age is often used to determine eligibility for social policies and programs. While the typical age-based threshold for the programs targeted toward older people is 65, research suggests that age-based criterion can create gaps for older people who are homeless. This is in part because people with lived experience of homelessness tend to experience 'age-related impairments' when they are approximately 10 years younger than the general population (Cohen, 1999; Gonyea, Mills-Dick, & Bachman, 2010; Hibbs et al., 1994; Hwang et al., 1998; Morrison, 2009; Ploeg, Hayward, Woodward, & Johnston, 2008). As such, individuals aged 64 and under are often ineligible for seniors' programs and benefits. The other issue is the aging of populations who are already homeless, who may face increasing challenges as they age. Our review of the literature on homelessness among older people suggests that age 50 is the most appropriate inclusive threshold where policy and planning is concerned (Grenier, Barken, Sussman, Rothwell, Lavoie, & Bourgeois-Guérin, 2016; see also Cohen, 1999; Garibaldi, Conde-Martel, & O'Toole, 2005; Gonyea et al.,, 2010; McDonald, Dergal, & Cleghorn, 2007; Ploeg et al., 2008; Shinn et al., 2007), and is thus the age-boundary used in our work.

Although this age base of 50+ is helpful as a parameter for research and practice, it can somewhat obscure important differences that exist within the sub-population of older homelessness. Older people typically experience one of two types of homelessness: they are either homeless throughout their lives, or at some point, and continue this pattern as they age (i. …

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