Achieving greater recognition of the needs of our homeless population has become an undeterred focus of mine. Professionally, I am connected to the residents who call B’nai B’rith sponsored, low-income senior housing home, and through volunteering with a local United Methodist Church, I help address local homelessness in the District of Columbia. Through these organizations, I have witnessed a devastating national trend: the apparent aging of our nation’s homeless population.
On the surface, the current proportion of homeless individuals who are seniors represents a failure of our society to take care of our oldest citizens. Though, it is also an expensive problem to ignore. An older person who has not yet reached “retirement age” (those ages 50-64) represents a group which frequently falls between safety nets that are age based. Programs that are meant to intercept the part of our population that, generally speaking, are cycling off the workforce are generally reserved for those who have reached the magical age of 65 (or 62 for subsidized senior housing). Thus, many folks who have lost jobs, lost income or who do not have enough savings, find themselves stuck between the gap, and enter their “senior years” having expensive untreated conditions and deteriorating health.
It should come at no surprise that navigating the conditions of living on the street or experiencing insecure housing (this includes nighttime shelters, a couch at a friend or relative’s home, or frequent relocation because of unreliable conditions) exacerbates physical and/or mental health conditions, poor nutrition and untreated chronic illness. It’s imperative to point this out, as we see that health care needs by those aged 50-64 who lack housing are awfully similar to housed individuals 65 and older. Premature aging and shortened life expectancies are inevitable when one lacks the basic of human necessities in order to survive.
Simply put, seniors have the steepest housing challenge. This should come at no surprise if we look at increasing poverty amongst retirees as well as the decreasing availability of affordable housing. In fact, more than four million people above the age of 65 live in poverty, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Of those individuals, only 1.6 million receive rental subsidies from the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).
About 10,000 people turn 65 every day in U.S. Based on demographics alone, Justice in Aging, a national nonprofit legal advocacy organization that fights senior poverty, estimates that this will result in nearly 93,000 homeless seniors, doubling the 44,000 in 2010. This number becomes even more significant when economic factors are taken into consideration. While many may hold a stereotyped version of who is included among our homeless and home insecure, it’s important to remember a myriad of economic occurrences that have proven to be especially burdensome in the last decade: the Great Recession, mortgage debt accumulation following the housing crisis, wage stagnation, skyrocketing underemployment, the rising cost of medication and goods and the increasing lack of affordable housing.
Furthermore, in light of recent natural disasters having required evacuation, hunkering down and taking shelter, we have witnessed how quickly circumstances can change for someone depending on their very meager earnings or assets to survive. The recent tragedy of several seniors dying at a Florida nursing home that found itself in the wake of Hurricane Irma illustrates a true reminder that we need to be able to provide safe, quality care and housing for seniors regardless of whether they can live independently or not.
In my capacity as a volunteer, with a mission to serve our homeless in Washington, D.C., I’ve learned a lot about the unique needs of those in our community who lack housing. What has become obvious is the need to address the significant number of folks who have reached their older years but lack housing, health care and an income that can support their basic needs. We are living in a time where our lack of commitment to seniors’ well being, as they age, is not just appalling; the circumstances are dire. Every day, seniors die from a lack of resources in a country that saw economic, social and political progress as a result of their contributions.
If Congress and the current administration want a society that is great, it has to start simple: we must prioritize health and housing for ourselves and our neighbors as we age. We must strive for a society that does not allow housing insecurity and plummeting health to be inevitable part of aging into poverty. We must commit to taking care of the oldest among us.