10/4/2022 | By Terri L. Jones

Writer Terri L. Jones calls attention to a serious problem in America: seniors facing homelessness. The numbers of homeless older adults are growing, the results are tragic, and the solutions seem far away.

Most of those who are homeless in this country are under 50. However, a growing number of older Americans, who should be traeling, pursuing hobbies, and enjoying the fruits of their labor at this stage of their lives, are finding themselves living on the streets instead.

From 2007 to 2017, the rate of senior homelessness increased from 22.9 percent to 33.8 percent. As significant as that increase was, a study in 2019 projected that the number of homeless seniors would nearly triple by 2030. And that was before the pandemic and inflation, which have forced even more seniors out of their homes.

“We are seeing that retirement is no longer the golden dream,” said Dr. Margot Kushel, a physician who directs the Center for Vulnerable Populations at the University of California, San Francisco. “A lot of the working poor are destined to retire onto the streets.”

The causes of seniors facing homelessness

Just as younger people end up on the streets due to job loss, divorce, and medical problems, so do seniors. But there are other factors at play for older Americans, specifically those at the latter end of the baby boom generation.

Entering the job market in the early ’80s in the middle of a recession and high unemployment rates, many of these younger boomers struggled to build careers, working jobs without 401(k)s or pensions and taking home smaller paychecks which, in turn, have yielded smaller Social Security payments. Discriminatory real estate practices also made it impossible for many Black, Latino, and Indigenous boomers to buy homes, which made them particularly vulnerable to homelessness.

But the main reason for this crisis has been the lack of affordable housing for low-income seniors in this country. With 50 percent of those over 50 spending more than 30 percent of their income on housing, there’s very little left over to build a nest egg, making homelessness just a layoff or a hospitalization away.

“These are not necessarily people who have mental illness or substance abuse problems. They are people being pushed into the streets by rising rents,” said Kendra Hendry, a caseworker at Arizona’s largest shelter.

The impact

homeless woman with a cat sitting on a sidewalk. Photo by Wollertz, Dreamstime. Seniors facing homelessness: the numbers of homeless older adults are growing, the results are tragic, and the solutions seem far away.

Being homeless can put anyone at greater risk for loneliness, depression, drug use, victimization, and violence. However, the risk that you seldom hear about – and which is particularly dangerous for seniors – is the risk to the homeless person’s health.

People who are homeless over the age of 50 typically have the chronic health conditions of someone 15 to 20 years their senior. To add insult to injury, these homeless seniors, especially those who are too young to qualify for Medicare, often fall through the cracks of the health care system and may not be able to get the care that they need. It’s a snowball effect, and these health issues can often lead to premature death. The average life expectancy for homeless men is 56 and women 52, approximately 17.5 years less than someone who has permanent housing.

Related: Problems in senior access to mental health assistance

The sad truth

The boomer generation, which represents more than 20 percent of the population, is reaching old age all at once, and many are leaning on the government for support. But unfortunately, due to funding cuts, the safety net that this generation counted on isn’t there.

“It’s the first thing fiscally conservative people want to cut,” said Wendy Johnson, executive director of Justa Center in Phoenix, a daytime resource center for older homeless adults. “But this is every single senior to whom we promised that if they paid into the system, we’d take care of them.”

As a country, we need to make good on this promise and help all seniors have the “retirement” they deserve.

Terri L. Jones

Terri L. Jones has been writing educational and informative topics for the senior industry for over 10 years, and is a frequent and longtime contributor to Seniors Guide.

Terri Jones