Seniors are flooding homeless shelters that can't care for them (2023)

PHOENIX - Beatrice Herron, 73, clutched a flier offering low-cost cable TV, imagining herself settling into an apartment, somewhere out of the Arizona heat where, like others her age, she can settle into an armchair and tune into a television of her own.

Instead, the grandmother and former autoworker can be found most mornings in a food line, or seeking shade under the awning of a mobile street clinic. At night, she sleeps on a floor mat at a homeless shelter. She laments the odors of human waste outside and the thieves who have victimized her repeatedly.

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"My wallet's gone," she said. "My purse was stolen."

She hardly stands out from the dozens of seniors using wheelchairs and walkers at a complex of homeless shelters near downtown Phoenix, or from the white-haired denizens of tents in the surrounding streets - a testament to a demographic surge that is overwhelming America's social safety net.

Nearly a quarter of a million people 55 or older are estimated by the government to have been homeless in the United States during at least part of 2019, the most recent reliable federal count available. They represent a particularly vulnerable segment of the 70 million Americans born after World War II known as the baby boom generation, the youngest of whom turn 59 this year.

Advocates for homeless people in many big cities say they have seen a spike in the number of elderly homeless, who have unique health and housing needs. Some communities, including Phoenix and Orange County in California, are racing to come up with novel solutions, including establishing senior shelters and hiring specially trained staff.

"It's just a catastrophe. This is the fastest-growing group of people who are homeless," said Margot Kushel, a professor of medicine and a vulnerable populations researcher at the University of California at San Francisco.

The largest shelter provider in Arizona, Central Arizona Shelter Services (CASS), is rushing to open an over-55 shelter in a former Phoenix hotel this summer with private rooms and medical and social services tailored for old people. The facility will open with 40 beds and eventually reach a capacity of 170, but that will barely begin to address the problem of keeping older people safe and healthy. CASS says it served 1,717 older adults in 2022, an increase in one year of 43 percent.

In Orange County, a Medicaid plan is creating a 119-bed, first-of-its-kind unit that essentially will serve as an assisted-living facility exclusively for homeless people, said Kelly Bruno-Nelson, executive director for the plan, CalOptima Health.

"The current shelter system cannot accommodate the physical needs of this population," she said.

In San Francisco, Portland, Ore., and Anchorage, seniors also are staying for months in respite centers that were meant to provide a short-term stay for homeless people to recuperate. In Boise, shelter operators are hiring staff with backgrounds in long-term care to help homeless clients manage their daily needs while living for long stretches in hotels.

(Video) Photos Appear To Show Overcrowded Homeless Shelters After City's Efforts To Get Individuals Off Subw

The homeless population is famously difficult to count. People 55 and older represented 16.5 percent of America's homeless population of 1.45 million in 2019, according to the most recent reliable data. Dennis Culhane, a professor and social science researcher at the University of Pennsylvania, said the population of homeless seniors 65 and older will double or even triple 2017 levels in some places before peaking around 2030.

"It's in crisis proportions. It's in your face," Culhane said. "Average citizens can see people in wheelchairs, people in walkers, people with incontinence and colostomy bags making their living out of a tent."

A devastating combination of factors is to blame for the rising problem. People in the second half of the baby boom, who came of age during recessions in the 1970s and 1980s, face distinct economic disadvantages, Culhane said. Housing costs are soaring in many cities. The nation's system of nursing homes and assisted-living facilities is not equipped to handle the needs of homeless people, who suffer from high rates of substance abuse and mental illness.

Before Phoenix officials began clearing some streets of people this month, there were about 900 people living in a few square blocks known as "The Zone" and another 900 or so living in emergency shelters on the gated Human Services Campus in the same neighborhood, shelter operators said.

In Maricopa County, which encompasses the Phoenix metro area, an annual count in January documented more than 2,000 homeless people 55 and above, and nearly a third of those were 65 or older.

Living on the street ravages the human body, street doctors and advocates say. Homeless people contract chronic diseases and other geriatric problems much earlier than average. But long waits for housing and a lack of specialized care expose them to a continued onslaught on their health.

After treatment for an acute illness, hospitals often discharge homeless patients, who wind up back in shelters or even back into their sidewalk tents and makeshift lean-tos, in what health practitioners in Phoenix ruefully call "treat-and-street."

The threat of relapses and rehospitalizations is large. Aid workers said seniors' medicine is often stolen by younger homeless people on the streets. It is not unusual to assist clients with dementia.

Staff at CASS pass out adult diapers. Some unhoused seniors wait in the CASS shelter for a year or more while they wait placement in subsidized housing, assisted living or a nursing home. But CASS is not licensed to provide nursing-home-level care, and staff are not trained as nursing assistants. So patients cannot remain if they have advanced geriatric care needs and require help with activities of daily living such as dressing, eating and going to the bathroom.

"They need a higher level of care than the current shelter system can provide," said Lisa Glow, chief executive of CASS. "There have been times here where we had to turn people away, where it's really heartbreaking. They come in a wheelchair, late at night, and they can't take care of themselves."

In those instances, staff work to get an alternative space as quickly as possible, such as a hotel, she said.

In Phoenix, summer heat is on the way, which poses a particularly grave threat of dehydration, heat stroke and burns from bare feet - arms and legs coming into contact with blisteringly hot concrete and asphalt.

(Video) Gray Tsunami: More seniors filling homeless shelters

"Quite a lot of our patients have mobility issues," said Mark Bueno, a primary care doctor who treats patients living on the streets from a mobile clinic run by Circle the City, a local homeless aid group. "I have patients in their 80s out here."

In years of researching homelessness, Kushel has catalogued the countless paths to sudden homelessness for older adults. It often involves the death of a spouse or parent, which means income is lost and rent and mortgages can no longer be paid, she said.

Other long-term, chronically homeless people are simply aging on the street.

Medicaid, the health insurance program for the poor, will only pay for a long-term nursing home or assisted living bed if someone is unable to care for themselves. Many elderly homeless people are not debilitated enough to meet that criteria.

"That's where the gap in the system is," said Regan Smith, long-term care ombudsman program director in Maricopa County.

A pinball effect takes hold, said health-care providers, shelter operators and advocates. Homeless people bounce from homeless shelter to hospital, then to a nursing home for a short-term recuperation stay. Once that short-term stay ends, nursing homes must decide if the person is infirm enough to qualify for long-term care. If the answer is no, they must leave the nursing home, starting the cycle over again.

In New Mexico, 69-year-old Steven Block, suffering from memory problems, ended up homeless in the lobby of a Coyote South hotel in Santa Fe this year after being evicted from a nursing home in Taos, Block's family members said.

Block, a former reporter for a community newspaper in southern Colorado, abused alcohol and suffered a fall near his home in Raton, N.M, said Terrie Gulden, his brother in law. He suffered hip and shoulder fractures and was treated in an Albuquerque hospital, where doctors discovered he had dementia, Gulden said. He transferred to the Taos facility in June 2022 but was discharged with no notification to the family on the last day of January, Gulden said. Block, who had some socks and a change of underwear in a garbage bag, was unable to tell his family how he ended up in Santa Fe.

"I had no idea that was happening until I got a call from a Santa Fe hotel that he was in their lobby. He had no money, no papers, no discharge papers. He was just out on the street," Gulden said. "I can't believe that this stuff happens across the country. I know it does, but when it happens to you, it just floors you. It's unbelievable."

After two weeks in a homeless shelter in Santa Fe, the local fire department gave Block a ride to the Albuquerque airport, Gulden said, so Gulden could pick up him up and bring him back to Minnesota to be near family.

He was lucky to have relatives who could whisk him to a safer environment. Block now resides in a subsidized apartment. He has family and paid help assisting him with meals and housecleaning.

For people in Block's circumstances without family support, some shelters utilize special units called "respite" centers.

(Video) Why can't America solve its homelessness crisis?

Respite centers now number about 150 around the country, up from 80 in 2016, according to the National Health Care for the Homeless Council. They often are funded at least in part by local hospitals that want to avoid discharging homeless people back onto the streets.

They are designed to help homeless people recuperate for a few weeks after a health crisis. But with nowhere else to go, elderly people tend to stay far longer.

In Anchorage during the pandemic, shelter operators took over a hockey arena to provide socially distanced quarters for homeless people. But they quickly found that elderly people with wheelchairs and walkers could not get up the stairs from the arena floor up to the mezzanine, where food was served. It highlighted the need for a vastly expanded respite unit for homeless elderly and disabled.

Catholic Social Services has opened an expanded version of a respite center, what they call a "complex care" facility in a former hotel, where more than 65 percent of current residents are 55 and older.

Still, residents are free to come and go, which poses problems when caring for people with dementia. One man in his 70s walked out in January and was found at the airport several days later, facility staff said. He told police he was waiting for a flight. He didn't have a ticket.

"He had a coat on. He had a beanie on. He was well-prepared for the weather conditions. But I have no idea how he got out to the airport," said Jessie Talivaa, program coordinator for complex care at Catholic Social Services. He did not recognize Talivaa when Talivaa showed up to retrieve him. "I said, `How about we go get a cup of coffee?' and I got him a cup of coffee and brought him straight home."

Now the man is on a waiting list for an assisted-living facility in Anchorage. Talivaa said he is hopeful the man will get into the new place within a few months.

Yet another problem arises, however, when people approach death while in respite care, said Kushel, the San Francisco medical school professor and advocate.

"Medical respite was not intended to be palliative care, hospice care, end-of-life care," she said, "yet some respite programs are starting to provide that service because there is nowhere else for these folks to go."

Phoenix street physician Mark Bueno said ambulances pick up a dead person from a tent in The Zone about once a week. Reasons vary, but the combination of aging bodies, brutal living conditions and drugs are often deadly. Nette Reed, an employee of the Human Services Campus, walks the streets early in the morning performing wellness checks on seniors.

Cheryl Sanders, 59, huddled in a pup tent, said she had returned to her spot on the street after being discharged from the hospital two weeks before, following what she said was a second heart attack. It was already hot out at about 8 a.m., and she was surrounded by heavy blankets. She appeared thin. She gratefully accepted water bottles.

She told Reed that she was ready to give up her tent and come inside a shelter, even though she said she has not gotten along with people in the shelter in the past.

(Video) LA County Opens Up Temporary Shelters To House Homeless During Coronavirus Pandemic

"I'm tired," Sanders said.

"You know I've been itching to get you off these streets," Reed said.

Herron, in two interviews on consecutive days, said she has moved back and forth between her native Mississippi and Phoenix several times in recent years, traveling by Greyhound bus to be near family. Herron said she has endured sporadic homelessness for years.

She lived in an assisted-living facility for a time in 2022, she said, but even at the subsidized rate it consumed $600 of her $800-per-month Social Security payment. She moved in with a nephew, but that didn't last and she wound up at one of several shelters at the Human Services Campus. Early this month she was waiting to move into a subsidized apartment that would cost her one-third of her monthly Social Security income.

It would probably leave enough for cable TV payments, she said.

For now, for diversion, she said she likes to ride the light rail cars that glide through downtown Phoenix. She enjoys hearing kids laughing on the train. She wears motivational wristbands; one says "Never Give Up," the other says "One Day at a Time."

Tears well near the surface. They overflow when talk turns to her adult children.

"They see me at Christmas," Herron said, her voice quavering. "They call me Mama."

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Why are older adults at risk for homelessness? ›

Of these, almost half first became homeless after age 50. Adults ages 50 and older who are homeless are experiencing health conditions—including cognitive and functional impairment—20 years earlier than their housed counterparts. They often use costly acute healthcare services, and die prematurely.

Why is homelessness a problem in the United States? ›

The major causes of homelessness include: Lack of sufficient urban housing projects to provide safe, secure, and affordable housing to the financially underprivileged. Additionally for low wage workers rents can be unaffordable in areas where their workplace is located.

What is the problem with homelessness? ›

For example, poor physical or mental health can reduce a person's ability to find employment or earn an adequate income. Second, some health problems are consequences of homelessness. These include depression, poor nutrition, poor dental health, substance abuse and mental health problems.

What is the fastest growing homeless population seniors? ›

Seniors. Seniors are the fastest growing unhoused population. From 2017 to 2021, California's overall senior population grew by 7% but the number of people 55 and older who sought homelessness services increased 84%.

What are at least three reasons why people become homeless? ›

10 Causes of Homelessness
  • ADDICTION. Probably the most common stereotype of chronically homeless people is that they are drug and alcohol addicts — with good reason. ...

What is the average lifespan of a homeless person? ›

Overall, the average life expectancy of homeless people is 42 to 52 years old. If assistance isn't available until someone reaches 65 years old, then he or she may be dead by then.

What is the hardest part of being homeless? ›

Social isolation and risk of incarceration

Clearly, living without material comforts is only one part of the plight. The mental struggle caused by isolation and abuse is often an even more difficult burden to bear.

What is one of the largest causes of homelessness? ›

The single greatest systemic cause of homelessness is a lack of affordable housing.

What state has the worst homeless population? ›

The California State Auditor found in their April 2018 report Homelessness in California, that the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development noted that "California had about 134,000 homeless individuals, which represented about 24 percent of the total homeless population in the nation” The California State ...

Which cities have the worst homeless problem? ›

Which cities had the largest homeless populations in 2022?
City nameHomeless population 2022
Los Angeles City & County65,111
New York City61,840
Seattle/King County13,368
San Jose/Santa Clara City & County10,028
6 more rows
Mar 28, 2023

What country has the most homeless people? ›

Syria has the world's highest homeless rate with one-third – roughly 29.6% – of the country's 22 million population being homeless. Syria continues to have the worst displacement situation in the world.

What does the Bible teach us about homelessness? ›

Of the Four Evangelists, Luke emphasizes Jesus' homelessness the most. Matthew 8:20 and Luke 9:58 both record a statement by Jesus in which he describes his homelessness by saying that "foxes have holes and the birds of the air have nests, but the son of man has nowhere to lay his head".

What is the root cause of homelessness? ›

Poverty. On a global scale, poverty is one of the most significant root causes of homelessness. Stagnant wages, unemployment, and high housing and healthcare costs all play into poverty. Being unable to afford essentials like housing, food, education, and more greatly increases a person's or family's risk.

What are the 4 types of homelessness? ›

Within the homeless definition there are four categories of homelessness:
  • Literally Homeless.
  • Imminent Risk of Homelessness.
  • Homeless Under Other Federal Statutes.
  • Fleeing/Attempting to Flee Domestic Violence.

Who has the lowest homeless rate? ›

California, Vermont, and Oregon have the highest rates of homelessness across the 50 states. Washington, DC, however, had the highest rate overall at 65.6 per 10,000 people. Mississippi had the lowest, at 4.1 per 10,000 people.

Who is the fastest growing homeless group? ›

Older adults, those age 65 and older, represent the fastest growing group of homeless, and by 2030 their numbers are expected to triple, according to Dr.

Who experiences homelessness the most? ›

Almost one third of people experience homelessness as a family. People who are Black or African American and those who are American Indian or Alaska Native have higher rates of homelessness.

What are the top two reasons for homelessness? ›

What are the Most Common Reasons for Homelessness?
  • Substance Abuse. Starting with the cause people typically think of… ...
  • Housing Costs. One of the leading factors of homelessness is the lack of affordable housing. ...
  • Escaping Domestic Violence. ...
  • Poverty. ...
  • Disabilities and Mental Health.
Oct 22, 2019

What is the solution to homelessness? ›

The solution to homelessness is simple – housing. Rapid re-housing is an intervention designed to quickly connect people to housing and services.

Who is the oldest homeless person? ›

A homeless man claims to be the oldest person in the world at the age of 116. A homeless man claims to be the oldest person in the world at the age of 116. Brazilian ex-sailor Deraldo Magno Santos only recently found his birth certificate.

Why do homeless people prefer to live on the streets? ›

This is because the shelters have strict rules pertaining intake process. As a result, individuals who work late in the night are usually locked out. This limitation makes the homeless individuals opt for other options, such as staying in the streets.

Why are homeless people's legs swollen? ›

In addition, venous stasis of the lower extremities (i.e., poor circulation because of varicose veins) caused by prolonged periods of sitting or sleeping with the legs down predisposes homeless people to dependent edema (swelling of the feet and legs), cellulitis, and skin ulcerations.

What type of people are most homeless? ›

Racial minorities experience homelessness at a disproportionate rate. For example, black or African Americans make up 13% of the general population but 40% of the homeless population. Indigenous people across the country continue to experience homelessness at even higher rates.

What is the pain of being homeless? ›

Confidence and self-esteem are inevitably diminished by homelessness. The feelings of defeat and worthlessness that so often accompany homelessness can be crippling, and can prevent people from seeking help.

What percentage of Americans are homeless? ›

The Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) counted around 582,000 Americans experiencing homelessness in 2022. That's about 18 per 10,000 people in the US, up about 2,000 people from 2020.

What are the symptoms of homelessness? ›

Potential Warning Signs of Homelessness
  • Note: While these are considered warning signs, please recognize that they only offer general guidance. ...
  • Lack of Continuity in Education.
  • Poor Health/Nutrition.
  • Transportation and Attendance Problems.
  • Poor Hygiene.
  • Lack of Privacy/Personal Space After School.

How does mental illness lead to homelessness? ›

People living with mental health problems and disorders are more susceptible to three key factors that can lead to homelessness: poverty, disaffiliation, and personal vulnerability. Certain disorders can limit individuals' capacity to sustain employment, and as a result they have very little income.

Where is the best place to be homeless in the US? ›

Texas. The cities of Houston and Austin are amongst some of the best cities to be homeless, as they offer the most support to those who are down on their luck. In fact, homelessness has dropped drastically in the last ten years in the city of Houston due to their housing first policy.

What is the best state in the United States to be homeless in? ›

San Diego, California

Aside from providing homeless services, the city also built tents and temporary shelters. It also has various non-profit organizations that provide food, shelter, and other necessary services to the homeless.

Does Florida have a homeless problem? ›

Despite Florida's progress on homelessness, the state still has the nation's third highest homeless population with 25,959 people being counted in 2022. At the same time, there are signs that Florida's housing market could leave many cost-burdened households behind.

What is the famous homeless city? ›

Skid Row is a neighborhood in Downtown Los Angeles. The area is officially known as Central City East. Skid Row contains one of the largest stable populations (about 9,200–15,000) of homeless people in the United States and has been known for its condensed homeless population since at least the 1930s.

What is the homeless capital of the world? ›

Los Angeles was called the “homeless capital” of the country by federal officials in 1984 and has lived up to that nickname ever since. The county of some 10 million people has more than 66,000 homeless residents, the majority living in the city of Los Angeles.

What is the number 1 cause of homelessness in California? ›

Poverty. Low wages. Mental illness and the lack of needed services (Single adult individuals)

Is homelessness worse in the US or Europe? ›

You might wonder why homelessness in Europe isn't much worse than in the United States — it's poorer on average, but also more densely populated with higher land costs. Part of the answer is about inequality. The median American is richer than the median resident of any European country.

Where is the best place in the world to be homeless? ›

In conclusion, while it may not have the smallest homeless population or the lowest rate of homelessness in the world, Finland is the country that handles homelessness the best.

Does Japan have homeless? ›

Homelessness in Japan (ホームレス, 浮浪者) is a social issue primarily affecting middle-aged and elderly males.

What does the Bible say about giving money to beggars? ›

Jesus says, “Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you,” in Matthew 5:42, and in James it says, “Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food.

What does the Catholic Church say about homelessness? ›

Catholic Social Teachings - Homelessness

Having adequate shelter is a basic human right; a right that the Church affirms as a key part of respecting and recognising our personhood. Ensuring everyone is able to access a safe, stable and adequate home is one part of working for the common good.

What does the Bible say about sleeping too much and poverty? ›

Proverbs 20:13 Amplified Bible (AMP)

Do not love [excessive] sleep, or you will become poor; Open your eyes [so that you can do your work] and you will be satisfied with bread.

Is homelessness caused by poverty? ›

Homelessness and poverty are inextricably linked: when economic instability increases, so does the risk of homelessness. Thus, older Americans living in poverty are at increased risk of becoming homeless or experiencing housing instability.

When did homelessness in America begin? ›

After declining briefly after the Civil War, homelessness first became a national issue in the 1870s. Facilitated by the construction of the national railroad system, urbanization, industrialization, and mobility led to the emergence of tramps “riding the rails” in search of jobs.

What is chronic homelessness? ›

Chronic homelessness is used to describe people who have experienced homelessness for at least a year — or repeatedly — while struggling with a disabling condition such as a serious mental illness, substance use disorder, or physical disability.

What to do if you have no place to go? ›

Look for a Local Shelter

In cases like this, local shelters are your best bet. Shelters are designed to provide accommodation for people with nowhere to go. In some cities, the shelters can be packed.

What are the 3 P's of homelessness? ›

The 3 Ps put middle- and working-class residents and the poor first. Follow Housing Is A Human Right on Facebook and Twitter.

What are 5 things a homeless person could use? ›

Consider lip balm, toothpaste, toothbrush, comb, razor, shaving cream, and deodorant. variety of services available to homeless men, women and families that they might not know about.

Why are older people at risk for poverty? ›

Getting old presents a significant, additional risk of becoming or remaining poor. In later life, people reduce their working hours or stop working because of retirement options or health issues, and when they need or prefer to continue working, many earn lower wages.

Why is the elderly population considered vulnerable? ›

Adults over age 65 are more likely to encounter diseases related to aging, such as Alzheimer's disease, or more advanced chronic conditions such as diabetes and heart disease. They are also more likely to suffer from multiple conditions, and may have mobility issues that impede access to care.

Why do adults become homeless? ›

People become homeless for a variety of reasons: Poverty. Lack of affordable housing. Physical/mental illness or disability.

What makes you at risk of being homeless? ›

Have an annual income below 30 percent of median family income for the area, as determined by HUD, and. Do not have sufficient resources or support networks, immediately available to prevent them from moving to an emergency shelter or place not meant for habitation, and.

What country has the highest elderly poverty rate? ›

Among the elderly, the largest poverty depth – more than 35% of the income at the poverty threshold – is in Iceland, Korea, Mexico, Turkey and the United States. This means that in these countries the average income of those aged 66+ who are relatively poor is less than 65% of the relative poverty line income.

At what age are people considered elderly? ›

Overview. An older person is defined by the United Nations as a person who is over 60 years of age.

Which group of elderly are most likely to live in poverty? ›

Poverty Measures

Older women are more likely to live in poverty than men as a result of wage discrimination and having to take time out of the workforce for caregiving.

What are the most common crimes against the elderly? ›

Burglary, robbery, and fraud are the crimes most frequently committted against the elderly.

What are the most common crimes committed by the elderly? ›

Particularly common among the elderly are larceny, shoplifting, and driving while intoxicated. Many causes can be pointed to -loss of prestige upon retirement, psychological problems, boredom, feelings of helplessness -- but economic need is especially critical.

What are three reasons why vulnerable older adults may not seek health care? ›

These include lack of access to affordable health insurance coverage, barriers to enrollment in public programs, and patient-provider relation. In addition low health literacy, which is associated with poverty, limited education, and lack of affordable health insurance, is another important factor.

What are the signs of homelessness in adults? ›

Exhibiting anger or embarrassment when asked about current address • Mention of staying with grandparents, other relatives, friends, or in a motel or comments, such as: “I don't remember the name of our previous school.” “We've been moving around a lot.” “Our address is new; I can't remember it.” (may hide lack of ...

How long do homeless people live? ›

Homelessness is devastating, dangerous and isolating. The average age of death for people experiencing homelessness is 46 for men and 42 for women. People sleeping on the street are almost 17 times more likely to have been victims of violence.

What are the 4 types of homeless? ›

Within the homeless definition there are four categories of homelessness:
  • Literally Homeless.
  • Imminent Risk of Homelessness.
  • Homeless Under Other Federal Statutes.
  • Fleeing/Attempting to Flee Domestic Violence.

What is hidden homelessness? ›

According to the Canadian Definition of Homelessness, the "hidden homelessness" population falls under the category of "provisionally accommodated." It refers specifically to people who live “temporarily with others but without guarantee of continued residency or immediate prospects for accessing permanent housing.” ...


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