No place to live
Failing health, crumbling incomes, and rising home costs are forcing thousands of older adults nationally into homelessness, a dilemma that includes the Puget Sound region.
According to researchers, a full and comfortable retirement is no longer realistic for millions of aging seniors. Many face the double conundrum of needing to work beyond typical retirement age to make ends meet, while health and age-related issues make it difficult to get jobs with employers who shy away from older workers. Those factors, coupled with others like cost of living, can put older adults on the streets.
The number of homeless seniors across the U.S. jumped nearly 70 percent between 2007 and 2017, according to researchers. During that period, the problem in Washington was highlighted in a 2016 survey that found 22 percent of people in King County who were experiencing homelessness were over the age of 50. Also, nearly a third of the clients in homeless shelters funded by United Way of King County were older than 55, according to the Area Agency on Aging for Seattle and King County.
The total number of homeless people in King County was nearly 12,000 as recent as 2020, according to studies by the county and the city of Seattle.
In Pierce County, the annual Homeless Point-In-Time Count (conducted each January) has county-organized volunteers seek out individuals and ask them about their situations. In 2021, of the 1,005 homeless people who were contacted, 162 (25 percent) were 55 or older. Only those living in shelters were contacted due to safety concerns over the COVID-19 pandemic. In 2020, when unsheltered and sheltered alike were counted, 261 were 55 to 61 years old and 167 were 62 and up—a combined 23 percent of the 1,817 total.
Results from the 2022 count, scheduled for Jan. 27-28, weren’t available when Senior Scene went to press.
The state Department of Commerce, in a report posted on its website in August 2020, related a non-profit organization’s experiences dealing with homeless seniors in Olympia. “Very regularly we meet seniors in their 70s and 80s who are newly homeless and come to our doorstep with no idea about what to do or where to go for help,” said Meg Martin, director of Interfaith Works. She said they often have chronic health conditions, “mobility challenges,” and cognitive issues “related to memory or tracking dates and times.”
As housing prices climb, “seniors living on a fixed income will continue to face immense risk and housing instability. Further, once they do fall into crisis and homelessness, the system overall is underequipped to support them in the ways they need,” Martin said.
King County’s senior centers are trying to help. For example, Enumclaw Senior Center has steered them toward medical or mental health services, clothing donations, and places to take a warm shower—the latter through “shower coupons” that the center purchased from a local swimming pool.
On the subject of negative impacts of housing issues on health and welfare, Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department’s director of health, Dr. Anthony L-T Chen, wrote recently that helping people “find housing they can afford is a policy priority. We encourage elected officials and communities to support more choices for housing in our region” through “community-level actions.”
On a statewide level, Governor Jay Inslee is asking the Legislature to bolster Washington’s efforts—with a large pricetag–in finding solutions for homelessness. He has proposed an $800 million investment to pursue new ways to help people remain in their homes (in the case of rentals, by expanding assistance for tenants t pay past-due utility bills and avoid), build 1,500 supportive and affordable housing units and increase support services for people with behavioral health needs, and transition homeless people to permanent housing.
“Unsheltered Washingtonians deserve a safe, warm and dry place to live, with additional resources available if they need them. This is not only the right thing to do for these people, but the right thing to do for our state and our communities,” Inslee said.
Some of the nation’s major cities are facing their own issues. Researchers predict the number of homeless seniors in New York City (more than 17,000 in 2017) will be about 25,000 in 2030; and in Los Angeles, the 14,000-plus seniors on the streets in 2020 is expected to reach 30,000 10 years from now.
Communities need to lead potential solutions to the problem of senior homelessness, said Nick Saifan, chief executive officer of Vendaval Corp., a Los Angeles, Calif.-area company that is developing affordable housing for older adults and veterans.
“The government can’t do everything,” Saifan said. “We have to start thinking about these issues as a community. More private entities are needed to take the lead on behalf of these seniors. We all need to think beyond ourselves and focus on helping elders enjoy their golden years.”
He noted more seniors have chosen to age in place, meaning they’re holding onto their single-family residences longer than previous generations. But that option may not be possible for all seniors, especially those who need extra help or who rent their homes. Seniors who live on fixed incomes are vulnerable to rent increases.
A partnership of communities, advocates, homebuilders and government “may be the best way to create a better future” through possible options such as fixed-rent controls, the conversion of large shipping containers into housing, and access to vacant land and empty buildings controlled by state and local government, Saifan said.