David J. Jefferson
Picture your grandmother. Gnarled, spotted hands creak, pull an ancient scarf down over wisps of white hair. Cataract eyes peer through cloudy glass, gaze into yours through imagined years intermediary. Call it age or gender bias, but she is a woman envisioned in comfortable surroundings, all overstuffed armchairs and well-provisioned kitchens.
Yet a gritty, alternate version of the elderly archetype will become increasingly visible in the years to come. The homeless population in Boston and across America is aging rapidly, a process coupled with the simultaneous trend of more elderly adults becoming newly homeless.
Such was the topic of conversation at a recent panel hosted by the Citizens’ Housing and Planning Association (CHAPA) and Hearth, Inc., at which experts discussed the policy implications and models for cost effective solutions to stem the crisis of “the rising tide”.
According to a report published last month by the National Alliance to End Homelessness, homelessness is beginning to increase among elderly adults. Converging trends will feed the equation—as baby boomers turn 65 the growth of the overall population of elderly individuals in the U.S. will surge. Meanwhile, the number of homeless adults from ages 50-64 is expanding, according to recent reports.
For example, in San Francisco in the period from 1990-1994 to 2000-2002, the representation of people ages 50 and over in the street homeless population grew from 11.2% to 32.3% (from Hahn, et al., Journal of General Internal Medicine). Here in Massachusetts, homelessness among those ages 55 and older increased from 8% of the homeless population in 1999 to 14% in 2003 (from Maschede, et al., UMASS Center for Social Policy).
Based on the predictions of the National Alliance to End Homelessness, the elderly homeless population will increase dramatically between 2010 and 2020. According to the recommendations of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Heath Resources and Services Administration (HRSA), this augmentation will require a multidisciplinary-team approach to treating the complex health, mental health, and substance abuse issues that frequently and comorbidly affect elderly adults in situations of homelessness.
A 2003 HRSA report explains that numerous external and internal barriers inhibit older homeless individuals from accessing services, and advocates for the minimization of these in order to achieve optimum health and housing security. Obstacles that elderly homeless persons may face include difficulty using the shelter system—which can be especially harsh for an older adult—lack of affordable housing and transportation, or simple unawareness of resources and benefits, such as SSI or food stamps. Complicating these external barriers is the fact that elderly people experiencing homelessness may experience greater distrust of service providers, out of fears such as that of “being put in a home”.
The image of your grandparents clinging to a threadbare blanket beneath a murky highway overpass—or perhaps more realistically, bunking in cots beside nefarious characters in emergency shelters—is likely enough to elicit revulsion and shame. Still, awareness of and solutions to the problem of elder homelessness in America are seriously insufficient.
Dread of “the system” felt by older adults in situations of homelessness is largely justified. After all, the conventional approach to address aging in the contemporary United States is to sequester elderly persons, to strip them of their independence and individual agency, to silence their voices in civic dialogue—diminished societal productivity is equivalent to death in America.
Elderly persons experiencing homelessness deserve the respect that your grandfather should command when recounting tales of his youth, or the affection you’d feel in the arms of your grandmother’s embrace. The onus of change rests on the shoulders of the young. May we be inspired by the wisdom of our elders.