Elderly homelessness: is this the future of growing old? (Part 1 of a 2 part series)

Every day we treat them as if they are invisible.  We don’t establish eye contact and tend to go about our business of getting home or to work without a second glance. It probably never occurs to us that one major “hiccup” in our lives could put us in the exact same situation. Who are they?  They are whom we call “homeless” people. What was once considered an aberration, is now the norm.  America’s homeless population is graying and there is little chance that this will not continue to explode.

But those who were once mostly invisible, are starting to become very noticeable, simply due to their age. “There is a sense out there that some communities are seeing a new visible homeless problem that they have not seen in many years,” said Dennis P. Culhane, a professor of social policy at the University of Pennsylvania.

A 2015 analysis of 2013 federal and state poverty data found that 45% of adults who were 65 and older were had incomes below 200% of the poverty threshold. Many older homeless people have been on the street for a good portion of their adult lives.

“The programs for baby boomers are designed to address longstanding programs — mental health, substance abuse,” said Benjamin Henwood, an assistant professor at the University of Southern California School of Social Work. “But they are not designed to address the problems of aging, and that is a big problem for homeless treatment in the years ahead.”


The increasing number of more recent homeless adults now have to learn a different way to live and it is not kind.  While many seniors are trying to decide where to retire, a myriad of factors is forcing some seniors to the streets. And women now constitute one in four chronically homeless adults; and unmarried women, especially unmarried mothers and elderly women, now embody the largest number of adults needing social service assistance.

A report by the Vancouver Shelter Strategy group stated that women are particularly vulnerable to homelessness due to a variety of reasons, including: financial difficulties due to loss of primary breadwinner or caretaker; financial pressures associated with grandmothers raising children; living alone; and being socially isolated. Similarly, a Toronto study on homeless older adults stated that older women are more likely to become homeless due to family-related crises (older men tend to become homeless due to a lack of work); and they are more at risk due to living alone and in poverty.”

While the causes are many, there are some triggers that can be directly traced to the reason people are forced to live on the street.

– Poverty from a lack of jobs with wages that can support the cost of everyday living.  Many of today’s older homeless have not worked long enough to earn Social Security and obviously have no other retirement income options. “That leaves them to turn to Supplemental Security Income, or S.S.I., a program set up to help poor older people and the disabled that typically pays around $733 a month. But S.S.I. is for people 65 and over, and Social Security does not start until age 62.  By then it might be too late. Experts say the average life span for a homeless person living on the street is 64 years.”

– The continuing divergence between affordable housing, the minimum wage and government benefits like Social Security or Social Security Income (SSI).  The affordable housing gap continues to escalate when compared to fixed incomes and the lack of a livable wage.

– Lack of inexpensive transportation.  When owning a car is not an option for those who need or want to continue to work and earn a wage that supports a normal standard of living, the availability of public transportation becomes a necessity.  Connecting the dots between getting to a job from where you are living can be the dividing line between being employed and unemployed.

– Affordable health care and services that directly address the complex needs of the aging population.  While there is no debate that mental illness, substance abuse and domestic violence may have been the initial cause for them to become homeless, the reality now is that this elderly population’s health needs involve dementia, chronic health conditions, loss of mobility, vision and hearing and a whole host of health conditions that are overloading the social service sector.

– Accessibility challenges and problems performing activities of daily living (ADLs).  Stairs, sleeping on a floor, lack of accessible bathing facilities and obstacles for those who use walkers or wheelchairs create barriers every single day for those already under pressure just to survive.

There is no easy answer to this societal issue; but acknowledging that it does exist can start a dialogue.

“Programs like Social Security were created to reduce the probability that Americans would fall into poverty during old age. Yet a significant number of seniors — especially Hispanics, African-Americans and single women — still struggle with poverty. Detailed poverty data for the elderly is not yet available for 2010, 2011 or 2012, but the U.S. Census Bureau estimates that the poverty rate for Americans 65 and older edged up from 8.9 percent in 2009 to 9.0 percent in 2010. So the tragic problem continues.”

– The Affordable Care Act (ACA) has had a very positive effect on individuals with low incomes, providing them with greater access to Medicaid services through the ACA.  “As more individuals living at low incomes now have access to Medicaid through the ACA, we need to ensure that we have a simple, streamlined approach to identifying those with housing needs and that we are addressing the critical fact that inadequate housing units exist. This is a community issue and needs a collective approach to ensure that homeless individuals receive both healthcare and housing.”

– There is clear evidence that insufficient affordable housing continues to be one of the biggest barriers to homelessness and is nation-wide (and world-wide) in scope.  As the economy has improved, home prices, record high-end new housing starts and rents have risen, making the “dream” of home ownership no longer feasible and it may never be. This has “kicked many people to the curb,” making living on the street the only option.

Public/private funding partnerships will be necessary to put a dent in this ever burgeoning conundrum.  There is a wealth of existing housing stock that can be converted to satisfy permanent housing requirements.  This is especially true for seniors.  In an era where “recycling” has become a lifestyle, there is no reason this can’t include housing.  Modifications to existing housing that accommodate changes in mobility, hearing, vision and physical limitations can be cost-effective and would still provide a reasonable return on investment.

But amidst all of this “doom and gloom” exists positive approaches that can and do work. What may be needed is a way to filter out what is and is not creating positive change and expand and/or refine and combine them.  Every city, state and country has its own unique perspective and challenges, as does every homeless adult.  But there are also exceptional and distinctive tactics that are evolving and while they may never fully end homelessness, nevertheless they are working.  This is what my grandson would call “getting creative.”



Goldberg, Jennifer, et al (April 2016). How to Prevent and End Homelessness Among Old Adults. Justice in Aging: Special Report.
Retrieved from http://www.justiceinaging.org/homelessness/

Nagourney, Adam. “Old And On The Street: The Graying of America’s Homeless.”  2017.

Hecht, Laura B.C. “Elderly Homeless: A Comparison of Older and Younger Adult Emergency Shelter Seekers in Bakersfield, California,” abstract, Sage Journals: American Behavioral Scientist, (September, 2001) Web. Republished January 2017. Retrieved from abs.sagepub.com/content/45/1/66.full.pdf

 Banerjee, Sudipto.  “More Americans Are Entering Poverty as They Age.” Twin Cities Public Television. Nextavenue.org. June 18, 2012 18 June 2012.  Web.  17 December 2016.

Woolley, Emma. “What are the pathways to homeless in old age?  Canadian Observatory on Homelessness/Homeless Hub: York University. Homelesshub.ca/blog. 24 July 2015.  Web.  15 January 2017.

Australian Government, Department of Social Services. Housing Support: National Partnership Agreement on Homelessness.  15 March 2016.  Web.  2 January 2017.

Hatton, Celia. “Who will take care of China’s elderly people?” BBC News, Fujian province, China.  Bbc.com. 21 December 2015. Web.  1 January 2017.

Barken, Rachel et al. (April 2015) “Aging and homelessness in Canada: A review of frameworks and strategies.” Social Sciences and Research Council.
Retrieved from http://aginghomelessness.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/10/PolicyReview-FINAL-REPORT-

Image: Dreamstime.com


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