Throughout the course of the pandemic, federal, state and local governments have been instituting eviction moratoriums to stop people from becoming homeless. While I commend these efforts, what about the people who are already homeless? At B’nai B’rith we sponsor senior housing, so naturally I’m curious about how prevalent homeless seniors are across the country.
The Annual Homelessness Assessment Report (AHAR) shows there are over 170,000 older adults (55+) who are homeless. These numbers are only expected to increase to 225,000 by 2026. Obviously, no one wants to see anyone homeless, and we want everyone to live in secure and safe housing. However, the problems associated with homelessness shouldn’t be examined as just putting a roof over someone’s head, but how appropriately health care and housing are intertwined.
The Homelessness Policy Research Institute reports homeless older adults are more likely to have health issues compared to older adults with housing. Research demonstrates ailments associated with seniors like frailty, cognitive impairment, urinary incontinence and vision impairment are higher in homeless older adults compared to people 20 years older with housing. Complicating matters, too many homeless seniors are not even aware they are eligible for Medicare and Medicaid benefits. According to the 2018 Greater Los Angeles Homeless Count, only 10 percent of homeless adults in Los Angeles receive Medicare benefits. Think about all the undiagnosed ailments and health care problems plaguing seniors that could be treated from the outset. Furthermore, it’s generally cheaper to treat medical problems if they are diagnosed early.
So, what does this all mean?
The University of Pennsylvania published a report, “The Emerging Crisis of Aged Homelessness: Could Housing Solutions Be Funded by Avoidance of Excess Shelter, Hospital and Nursing Home Costs?” that tackles these very questions. The study concluded that investments in housing for older adults could save money by decreasing health care, nursing home and shelter costs. The report states:
“However, that large sums of public funding will go toward this crisis whether we act or not should motivate us to find the best and most responsible use of those funds. We can spend those dollars on potentially unnecessary hospital and nursing home days, or we can improve the quality of life of these vulnerable citizens, reduce the daily demands on hospitals and emergency departments to care for them, and relieve shelters of the burden for large-scale, aging-related care for which they are ill-suited.”
Furthermore, the study demonstrated that investments in a comprehensive housing strategy in New York and Los Angeles could save millions of dollars in services and produce positive investments.
The good news is that elected officials have begun to act. Last year, Minnesota created a program called “Housing Stabilization Services,” funded through Medicaid to help people find housing, negotiate leases and stave off evictions by identifying issues before they become too problematic. The goal for the program is to reach 7,000 people during the first three years. While this program is a good start, the Medicaid benefits don’t pay for rent.
Working at B’nai B’rith has made me very aware of the supply of affordable housing versus the demand in this country. While we regularly advocate to Congress for additional funding, our work doesn’t stop there. Our annual Housing Conference and Managers and Service Coordinators Meeting has provided training and panel discussions on welcoming new members to our housing community who previously were homeless. This came about because we recognized that the elderly homeless are at even more risk due to fragile health, etc. and wanted to make sure that we are reaching out to a very vulnerable population that can benefit from living in Housing and Urban Development (HUD) assisted housing with service coordination available to them. Whether it’s dispelling stereotypes or connecting people with supportive services, we want everyone to feel welcomed and succeed in their new surroundings.
For example, Goldberg B’nai B’rith Towers in Houston and Pasadena Interfaith Manor have implemented the HUD homeless preference program that allows people without a home to more easily find a place to live. The staff at the buildings have treated these residents equally and the partnership with HUD has worked nicely. Also, caseworkers help prospective residents fill out paperwork, move into the apartments and assist with other daily activities associated with being a renter.
The Joint Center for Housing Studies at Harvard University reports that by 2038, 2.4 million more seniors who are considered very low income won’t have access to affordable housing. Numbers don’t lie. Senior homelessness is only going to become a bigger problem. This means money is being spent on services alone when housing is a more dignified and cheaper response. It’s time to take a more wholistic approach to providing services for people and see that issues like homelessness and health care are connected.
This is an exciting year for the Center for Senior Services (CSS), celebrating our 50th anniversary! B’nai B’rith sponsors Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) affordable housing across the country and currently our network comprises 38 buildings and serves about 5,000 people, making us the largest national Jewish sponsor of subsidized housing in the United States. B’nai B’rith’s housing footprint is across the country with buildings from New York to California, down to Florida and everywhere in between. We began providing HUD-assisted senior housing in 1971, when we opened our first sponsored building B’nai B’rith Apartments in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania.
Not bad for fifty years!
Our housing network isn’t just about ribbon cutting ceremonies; it’s so much more. Mark D. Olshan, associate executive vice president of B'nai B'rith International and director of the B’nai B’rith International Center for Senior Services, was responsible for expanding our annual Conference on Senior Housing and starting our onsite staff training for management professionals. These trainings are a great opportunity for the B’nai B’rith housing community to come together, network with each other, and hear from experts in the field on how to make our individual buildings the best they can be for our residents.
Mark is also responsible for starting the bi-annual Resident Leadership Retreat, operating since 1987. This retreat not only connects fellow resident leaders throughout the B’nai B’rith housing network but provides many tools to strengthen their communities back home. Residents participate in intensive, day-long workshops regarding resident councils and by-laws, address language and culture barriers, communicate with management, publish a newsletter, spend time with campers doing intergenerational programing and more.
Since these programs’ inception, Janel Doughten, associate director of the Center for Senior Services, has taken over coordinating them, adding to the content and therefore value to the participants. Under Janel and our late co-worker Gene Fogel’s leadership, the annual staff training was expanded from just the managers to additional onsite staff including assistant managers, activity coordinators and service coordinators and is now called the B’nai B’rith Managers and Service Coordinators Training. The retreat was also expanded from three days to seven. These changes have provided for significantly more programing and training for additional staff and residents to bring back to their buildings. Due to the coronavirus pandemic, all training has moved to a virtual platform and has expanded to include a weekly Zoom meeting with the onsite building staff. Sharing ideas and best practices—especially during a nationwide emergency—is one of the main benefits of being part of our housing network.
During the year CSS will be highlighting our housing community through our media platforms. Expect video conversations between B’nai B’rith staff and volunteers discussing our organization’s rich history with affordable housing and the Resident Leadership Retreat. We intend on spotlighting our sponsored properties with fun facts and pictures, and interviews of our building’s board members and staff. Some of our staff and volunteers have been with the buildings since their creation. Also, it’s possible current B’nai B’rith residents could make an appearance to say hello and share their experiences.
Clearly there is lots to talk about and we are excited to share!
I have been privileged working at B’nai B’rith for the past four years, however my colleagues Mark and Janel have worked at the organization for 37 and 28 years, respectively. They rightfully talk about our senior housing program with pride. I hope during CSS’ 100th anniversary we will be able to highlight even more accomplishments in the name of affordable senior housing.
Recently, Social Security celebrated its 85th birthday! Since its inception, the program has been woven into the fabric of our nation and let countless seniors retire with dignity and respect. In 1935, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the legislation, an astonishing 50% of seniors lived in poverty. Roosevelt said regarding Social Security, “It is, in short, a law that will take care of human needs…” Fast forward, and today the legislation keeps 15 million seniors out of poverty, which is a remarkable achievement. Presently, Social Security provides a modest benefit of $1,514 on average a month to 45 million retired Americans.
Given the critical role Social Security plays in the lives of older Americans, it’s important to examine the health of the program moving forward. In April, the 2020 Social Security Trustees Report, which outlines the fiscal solvency of the program, indicated the Social Security Trust Funds would be sufficient to pay future obligations until 2035. In 2035, the program can pay about 79% of its obligations.
Sadly, the prospect of a shortfall has caused some people to say, “Social Security is going broke.” Nothing could be further from the truth. While a shortfall might exist, that doesn’t mean Social Security is going broke. Social Security is funded through the payroll tax; consequently, even if Congress did not provide a legislative fix, there would still be revenue coming into the program. While not ideal, Social Security funding 79% of its obligation is a far cry from an account with no money.
As everyone is aware, COVID-19 has unfortunately slowed our economy. People might not know, though, the economic downturn has negatively impacted Social Security. During a sluggish economy with less people are working, fewer individuals are drawing a paycheck. Thus, employers and employees are contributing less in payroll taxes. If our government is generating less money from payroll taxes, then Social Security is receiving less revenue.
So how does the pandemic impact the long-term future of Social Security? The short answer: In July, Stephen Goss, Chief Actuary for the Social Security Administration, testified before the House Ways and Means Subcommittee on Social Security. He was asked to answer this question. Goss said the pandemic’s impact on Social Security depends on how long the virus lasts. If the economy rebounds in 2021 and we don’t have a second wave, Goss said, the trusts funds short fall might only accelerate by a year.
However, “if closure due to the pandemic extends through 2021, or if there is a permanent reduction in the level of economic activity after recovery from this recession (as has been the case for some recent economic recessions), then the negative effects on the actuarial status of the combined OASI (Old Age and Survivors Insurance Trust Fund) and DI (Disability Insurance) Trust Funds could be substantially larger,” he said. Goss also noted the conclusions drawn in the 2020 Social Security Trustees Report were not based on the pandemic.
Regrettably, talks between the White House and Congress are stalling regarding further federal stimulus legislation in response to the virus. As a result, the president issued an executive order that could potentially cut payroll taxes for the rest of the year. Clearly, the immediate future Social Security revenue is not going to be stable, making the president’s executive order cutting payroll taxes disappointing. Many estimates predict that it could cause a loss of about $100 billion in the program’s revenue. Any potential cuts to the payroll tax could erode one of our nation’s most important programs for seniors. At a time when so many people are struggling, I do not think it’s wise to propose defunding money from Social Security, a program that lifts millions of people out of poverty.
I am certainly not arguing against federal stimulus legislation. While the money in the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES Act) is appreciated, it does not provide adequate funding to meet the challenges of the day. Legislation like The Health and Economic Recovery Omnibus Emergency Solutions Act (HEROES Act) and the Emergency Housing Assistance for Older Adults Act of 2020 are important bills that secure funding for all Americans, particularly seniors. So, we can provide relief to millions of Americans without threatening Social Security.
A federal program’s 85th birthday is a good time to take stock. Social Security has brought the senior poverty rate down by about 40 percentage points — not a bad accomplishment for an 85th birthday! It is never a good time to threaten Social Security’s future; it’s an especially bad time to do so now.. As Roosevelt said, “It is, in short, a law that will take care of human needs…”
Evan Carmen, Esq. is the Legislative Director for Aging Policy at the B’nai B’rith International Center for Senior Services. He holds a B.A. from American University in political science and a J.D. from New York Law School. Prior to joining B’nai B’rith International he worked in the Office of Presidential Correspondence for the Obama White House, practiced as an attorney at Covington and Burling, LLP, worked as an aide for New York City Council Member Tony Avella and interned for Congressman Gary Ackerman’s office. Click here to read more from Evan Carmen.
During the last decade, the LGBTQ community has made important strides in its effort to tear down the walls of discrimination in this country. The crowning achievement occurred when the Supreme Court declared that the right to marry extends to same sex couples. The court stated, “the right to marry is a fundamental right inherent in the liberty of the person, and under the Due Process and Equal Protection Clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment couples of the same-sex may not be deprived of that right and that liberty.” After the Supreme Court’s ruling in 2015, according to Gallup Daily tracking, about half of the people identifying as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender indicated they were living with a same sex partner and married. These couples were finally able to enjoy the practical benefits of marriage associated with tax exemptions, health insurance, Medicare, inheritance rights and Social Security survivor benefits.
While older Americans in the LGBTQ community have made great advancements in equality, more work is still needed. There are about 1.1 million LGBTQ seniors in this country, who often face their own unique set of challenges. One of those hurdles is around affordable housing.
Unfortunately, there are senior housing facilities which have been hostile to LGBTQ older Americans. The Equal Right Center studied housing discrimination facing LGBTQ seniors in 10 states and reported that 48 percent of same sex couples were victims of discrimination during the application process. Sadly, discrimination does not stop once LGBTQ older Americans move into a building. Often, they are victims of verbal and physical abuse by their fellow residents. Look no further than Marsha Wetzel who moved into a low-income senior building in Chicago, Illinois. When her fellow residents learned she is gay, she was emotionally and physically abused. Consequently, Lambda Legal filed a lawsuit against her building, Glen St. Andrew Living Community, claiming the defendant did not adequately protect Wetzel from the harassment, discrimination and violence that she encountered from other residents due to her sexual orientation. The federal appeals court further ruled that a landlord could be liable when he or she is aware of tenant-on-tenant harassment based on a protected class and didn’t take reasonable steps to stop the behavior.
Unfortunately, many LGBTQ seniors who want to age in place, don’t seek out assistance for fear of being treated poorly. Making life more complicated is that according to the National Alliance for Caregiving and AARP, this group is not as likely to have children, or a partner to help with caregiving.
Fortunately, cities around the country are taking positive steps to create affordable housing welcoming to LGBTQ seniors. These buildings advertise themselves as being LGBTQ friendly and often coordinate meetings and support groups that benefit this particular aging community. In addition, like many senior buildings, they go out of their way to create common areas that foster a sense of community and provide a space for educational programing and reduced cost meals. Carla Harrigan, a resident of Town Hall Apartments in Chicago told AARP, “Here, there's a sense of camaraderie. We have all lived through the difficult times of being gay or bi or trans, and now that we're seniors, we look out for one another.”
Funding for these communities has originated from local, state and federal resources and in some cases developers have been able to secure rental subsidies from the Department of Housing and Urban Development. These rental subsidies ensure that residents of the building are only obligated to pay 30 percent of their income on rent. Given the fact in 2016, 80 percent of residents at Town Hall Apartments had incomes below $15,000 a year, clearly these rental subsidies are badly needed.
Currently, 2.7 million adults 50 and over are part of the LGBTQ community, with that number expected to double by 2060. Everyone should be able to participate in society free of discrimination, especially in their home. We should applaud cities and nonprofit developers across America for creating housing that meets the needs of LGBTQ seniors. Hopefully, by fostering a sense of tolerance, LGBTQ older Americans will be better able to thrive in their homes and community.
Who reading this blog is tired of turning on the news and getting further depressed by stories regarding COVID-19? I imagine this feeling applies to most people in the country right now. No matter how you get your news, I can’t imagine it’s boosting your spirits. Consequently, let me provide uplifting stories of how businesses, government officials and ordinary citizens are trying to make the lives of seniors during this crisis just a little easier.
Although most of the country is under stay at home orders, too many people still have to go grocery shopping. As most people are aware, seniors have to be extra cautious when dealing with the public because of COVID-19. Consequently, trips to the grocery store can be problematic. Fortunately, stores like Walmart, Stop and Shop, Safeway, Albertsons, Whole Foods and Costco have all instituted dedicated shopping hours exclusively for seniors and other high-risk shoppers (ie. pregnant women and people with immune deficiencies). Hopefully, these hours have made it easier for people to social distance and buy groceries and other necessities. Also, some stores, like Walmart, are putting restrictions on the number of products you can buy in the areas of paper products, food and cleaning supplies. However, reports indicate that the system is far from perfect, with seniors still reporting large crowds during their designated shopping times.
In Nevada, CNN reported of a group called “Shopping Angels” led by a Jayde Powell, a pre-med student, that takes care of grocery shopping for seniors and disabled people. This is critical for older Americans who just can’t make it outside to get life’s essentials. Furthermore, the group is coordinating fundraising efforts and working with local business to help those seniors that are financially limited. "We don't want money to be a deterrent," Powell explained to CNN. "If you cannot afford toilet paper or something like that, you're still to reach out to us." It’s also great to see this program catching on, with other people across the country offering to volunteer. Other older Americans, like my wife’s grandmother, have good Samaritans in their buildings knocking on seniors’ doors to see if they can do basic errands like grocery shopping, picking up medications and running to the post office.
In addition, in the beginning of 2020, Maryland started a free “Senior Call Check,” which has turned out to be particularly important given the COVID-19 crisis. The programs is a service for residents 65 years and older, which provides a daily check-in call to seniors and updates on the virus. If two calls are placed and not answered, the senior’s point of contact will be notified, and if that does not work, the authorities will conduct a welfare check. State Representative Ben Kramer, the sponsor of the program, would like to see it expand from a mere checkup to include information regarding the weather and senior scams. Kramer said, “So, this could give a notice that, 'Hey we want to give you the heads up, this impending storm is coming. You may want to make sure, if you're stuck in your home, that you've got enough food for several days, or your medications are filled to cover you for several days.”
B’nai B’rith, as a sponsor of affordable senior housing across the country is certainly no stranger to people helping their neighbors throughout the crisis. For example, at Strauss Manor in Tucson, Arizona, and Sam J. Stone Covenant Apartments in Peoria, Illinois, staff members, volunteers and residents are pulling together to make masks for people who live in the buildings and their caregivers. At B’nai B’rith House in Claymont, Delaware, Jewish Family Services (JFS) donated food boxes for the residents even before the crisis. However, with help from the United Way, JFS has started to include essentials for residents (shampoo, toothpaste, etc.) so they don’t have to leave their homes. Naturally, these deliveries have been accomplished with social distancing in mind.
It’s always nice to hear stories about people going above and beyond, especially during times of crisis. Hopefully, the pandemic will recede soon, but in the meantime it’s nice to hear stories of communities rallying around each other for the betterment of everyone.
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