The Aging of the U.S. Homeless Population

Our nation’s homeless population is rapidly aging. The older homeless are largely young baby boomers who grew up during a time when the country experienced back-to-back recessions and a crack-cocaine epidemic. As highlighted in an article in The Nation, other causes include years of trickle-down economics, welfare cutbacks, increasing income inequality, the disappearance of unions, and the privatization of public services.

Dennis Culhane, PhD, from the University of Pennsylvania, predicts that this trend of older homeless individuals is likely to continue as many youth growing up in foster care or in juvenile justice systems, as well as new Veterans returning to civilian life, face challenges finding employment and housing and are therefore increasingly at risk for experiencing homelessness. Additionally, while recent initiatives to develop alternatives to incarceration have decreased the prison population, individuals reintegrating into society are often unprepared for life outside of prison and find themselves homeless or unstably housed.

In 2014, there were 306,000 people over 50 living on the streets, which is a 20% increase from 2007. People over 50 constitute 31% of the U.S. homeless population, a NY Times article points out (see also The Annual Homeless Assessment Report by the Department of Housing and Urban Development). A large majority of the older homeless population have been on the streets for a significant portion of their lives and often have complicated health issues that are difficult to address while living on the streets.homeless-man-mdn

Life on the streets would be hard on anyone’s body, but for older adults who have spent many years homeless it can be physically debilitating. Without regular access to a doctor, the consequences of living on the streets are extreme and can result in frequent visits to an emergency room for serious conditions, such as chronic pain and diabetes. A lack of healthcare often has homeless individuals in their 50s experiencing health problems similar to housed individuals in their 80s.

Advocates for the homeless point out that this problem is causing the cost of healthcare and social services to rise, which is creating a public health and policy crisis. Many point to permanent supportive housing as the solution to this problem, a solution that combines affordable housing with support services. If older homeless individuals are given homes, their health might not deteriorate as quickly and they may need fewer social services. Supportive housing has been instrumental in greatly reducing the number of chronically homeless individuals over the last decade.

To prevent the new trend of chronically homeless adults, Dennis Culhane recommends a wider range of preventative services to target populations at-risk of homelessness, including short-term emergency housing assistance, ongoing housing, financial, and educational supports for young adults, prison reentry programs, and Veteran support programs.

Ben HenwoodBen Henwood, PhD, from the University of Southern California Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work, is studying ways to make supportive housing services more suitable to the needs of older adults. He’s leading a two-year project to explore ways to reduce the gaps between the needs of L.A.’s older chronic homeless population and existing housing and support service options. This study focuses on health symptoms, such as delirium, falls, incontinence, and frailty, that are frequently found in older adults but are not specific disease categories. The goal is to provide data on how addressing age-related health conditions can be integrated into housing services and how to adapt screening services for the elderly in non-clinical settings.

Blog Post Author: Kelsey Whittington, MSW, graduate assistant for the National Center for Excellence in Homeless Services.

Like this post?
Check out this one about employment support programs for people experiencing homelessness.

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Binghamton University Hosts Film Screening and Panel Discussion to Raise Awareness about Homelessness

This past November 18th, in recognition of National Hunger and Homelessness Awareness Week, faculty and students from Binghamton University’s Department of Social Work collaborated with the Southern Tier Homeless Coalition to host a screening of the film Tiny: The Life of Erin Blackwell. A panel presentation and community conversation followed to raise awareness of homelessness, its potential ramifications, and to identify next steps. Binghamton’s mayor, Rich David, opened the event with a brief speech about his ongoing efforts to address homelessness.

The film follows the continuing life story of Erin Blackwell, who was first introduced to audiences 20 years ago in director Martin Bell’s Streetwise, a documentary about youth homelessness. Bell’s follow-up documentary profoundly chronicles the resilience and ongoing traumas encountered by the protagonist over the course of two decades.

More than 60 community members and students attended the event.


The panel included:

  • Cassandra Bransford, Associate Professor of social work at Binghamton University and faculty contact for the National Center, who served as moderator;
  • Shari Weiss, President of the Executive Board and Chair of the Southern Tier Homeless Coalition, who spoke about developing community partnerships to end homelessness;
  • David Wallace, Clinical Director at the LaSalle School (Albany, NY), who spoke about trauma, homelessness, and youth;
  • Jessica Peruse, Homeless Team Leader at the VA Medical Center (Syracuse, NY), who spoke about the Housing First model; and
  • Jed Metzger, Associate Professor of social work at Nazareth College and the school’s faculty contact for the National Center, who spoke about what we can do to end homelessness and poverty.

The panelists presented their perspective following the screening, answered audience questions, and encouraged audience members to get involved. Continuing education credits were offered to social workers for attending. The event was otherwise free and open to the public.

Panelists answered audience questions following the film.

Donations were solicited for the ongoing Freeze Fund initiative. Both prior to and during the event, students collected non-perishable food items, toothbrushes, socks and foot warmers to hand out in care packages to community members over the frigid winter months.

Ending Homelessness in Binghamton

The city of Binghamton has long been on the forefront of the struggle to eradicate homelessness. In late 2014, Mayor David announced a landmark accomplishment in this effort as part of the national Mayors Challenge to End Veteran Homelessness. On a single night across the city, not a single veteran experienced unsheltered homelessness, earning Binghamton the distinction of being the first city in the country to meet the Mayors Challenge.

These efforts continue to this day, led in large part by the Southern Tier Homeless Coalition, which coordinates services and conducts the yearly point-in-time count. The Coalitions’ work helps provide critical support to the community and gathers crucial data to secure funding for services both in urban Binghamton and in the surrounding rural counties.

Advancing Social Justice Together

This event supports the American Academy of Social Work and Social Welfare’s Grand Challenge to End Homelessness and aligns with CSWE’s fifth core competency – advancing human rights and social and economic justice. Homeless or otherwise, our most vulnerable community members deserve better, and it is our responsibility as social workers to help build a social safety net to protect them. This event to raise community awareness is only one step in the broader struggle to end homelessness.

Ultimately, ongoing collaboration among stakeholders is key. Rebecca Rathmell, the Southern Tier Homeless Coalition’s coordinator, said it best:

“It has to be a collaborative effort and everything from street outreach and making sure we’re identifying the youth and the families experiencing homelessness all the way to permanent support of housing.”

We were grateful to be able to collaborate to make this event happen and we at Binghamton University are looking forward to future opportunities moving forward.


About the Author: Michael Cole is a second-year master’s student and Graduate Assistant at the Binghamton University Department of Social Work. He is currently interning at the UHS Wilson Medical Center. In his spare time, he enjoys baking and blogging about social justice. 

Like this post?
Check out this one written by Robin Petering, doctoral candidate at the USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work.

Want more info?
Visit our website to learn more about us and our National Homelessness Social Work Initiative. And, join our mailing list to receive our newsletter.

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