Donna Hurley of Fresno works as a senior living specialist and caregiver. In the following article, Donna Hurley discusses the tragedy of homelessness affecting seniors across the United States, how this crisis came to fruition, and what can be done to help America’s seniors find housing.
At 73 years old, Beatrice Herron would love the simple comfort of watching TV in a living room. But instead, she’s battling the grueling reality of being homeless. With no place to call home, her life is a harsh sequence of seeking shelter under awnings, waiting in lines for a meal, and bedding down on a hard mat in a homeless shelter when the air cools each night.
According to estimates, in 2019, roughly a quarter of a million people aged 55 and older were homeless. Baby Boomers, with the youngest hitting 59 this year, are increasingly finding themselves without a roof over their heads. This growing wave of senior homelessness has sent many cities scrambling for solutions.
Donna Hurley of Fresno notes that Herron’s situation isn’t some made-up horror story; it’s a growing trend increasing in the United States. Faced with such a sad reality, cities are getting creative, designing specialized senior shelters, and training their staff to deal with this aging population’s unique needs.
Donna Hurley of Fresno on Crisis to Action
This rising trend of homeless seniors is a full-blown crisis. Margot Kushel, a researcher at the University of California, San Francisco, studying vulnerable populations, calls it “a catastrophe.” Big cities are seeing the steepest increase in homeless seniors, forcing communities like Phoenix and Orange County, California, to think outside the box.
Donna Hurley of Fresno explains that Phoenix’s Central Arizona Shelter Services (CASS) is gearing up to open a shelter exclusively for seniors. The shelter, repurposed from a former hotel, will offer private rooms, medical aid, and social services specially designed for older adults. But even with room for 170 residents, it’s barely making a dent in the problem.
Over in Orange County, their Medicaid plan is launching a one-of-a-kind unit, an assisted-living facility just for homeless people.
The Tough Road Ahead
Donna Hurley of Fresno explains that there’s a catch—the current shelter system isn’t really ready to handle the unique physical and mental health needs of aging adults. They’re wrestling with different health issues that make finding and keeping a home a challenge.
Counting how many seniors are homeless is a hurdle in and of itself, but the best estimates are that seniors made up 16.5% of the nearly 1.5 million homeless people in America in 2019. Some fear the number of homeless elderly could double or even triple in some cities, peaking around 2030.
Dennis Culhane, a researcher at the University of Pennsylvania, points to a mix of causes for this increase. Economic hardship experienced by those who grew up during the recessions of the 1970s and 1980s, rising housing costs, and a lack of preparation in nursing homes and assisted-living facilities are all adding fuel to the fire.
Living Rough Takes a Toll
Donna Hurley of Fresno explains that living on the streets is rough on anyone, but it’s particularly hard on the elderly. Homeless people are more likely to have chronic illnesses and other age-related health problems. They’re often stuck waiting for housing while facing a lack of specialized care, and their health can quickly spiral downward.
Hospitals often end up sending homeless patients back to the streets or shelters after treatment, creating a vicious cycle of relapse and rehospitalization.
Innovative City Strategies
Cities are employing a mix of strategies to address the issue of senior homelessness. In some regions, “Housing First” programs are being launched which prioritize getting homeless individuals into stable housing situations before addressing other issues they might be dealing with, such as mental health or addiction. Seattle, for instance, has funded “Just Care,” a program that provides temporary housing and intensive case management services to homeless seniors.
Donna Hurley of Fresno explains that other cities are focusing on preventative measures, creating affordable housing opportunities specifically for seniors at risk of homelessness. Boston has established a Senior Save program which provides funding for home repairs to help seniors keep their homes.
To tackle the immediate needs of homeless seniors, cities like Los Angeles are developing “safe parking” programs where individuals living in their vehicles can park overnight in a secure, monitored lot with access to sanitation facilities. Moreover, many urban areas are investing in improving their existing shelters, tailoring services to cater to the unique health and mobility needs of seniors, and offering comprehensive assistance that includes healthcare, counseling, and support in securing long-term housing.
Donna Hurley of Fresno also notes that these efforts, while not without their challenges, show a multi-faceted approach to a complex problem and demonstrate a willingness to adapt and innovate to address the growing issue of senior homelessness.
What sends a senior like Beatrice Herron out onto the streets can be as simple as an illness, a job loss, or a rent increase. More and more, we’re seeing our seniors without a safe place to rest their heads at night. But our cities are fighting back, working on innovative solutions to protect our most vulnerable.