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