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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.

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.