October 21, 2021

Homelessness in Kentucky Part 3: Senior Citizens

Register now for the KLC Homelessness Virtual Summit: Housing and Hope, November 9

By 2030, more than 74 million Americans will be 65 or older. And, unfortunately, one of the fastest-growing challenges among U.S. seniors is housing instability. Complicated by a myriad of health and other issues, homelessness is a real threat to seniors and communities. 

According to the National Coalition for the Homeless, increased homelessness among elderly persons is largely the result of poverty and the declining availability of affordable housing. There are at least nine seniors waiting for every one occupied unit of affordable elderly housing nationwide. Furthermore, the waiting list for affordable senior housing is often three to five years. 

And in addition to elderly persons, studies across the U.S. have shown a clear upward trend in the proportion of “older” persons’ (aged 50-64) among the homeless population. This is a group that frequently falls between the cracks of governmental safety nets.

There are all types of reasons any person may become homeless, but there is always one common denominator – lack of affordable housing.

Take Mabel’s story.

Mabel is now a 70-year-old central Kentuckian living on social security. She worked her whole life but is not in good health. She has no children or immediate family.

Her small, Section 8 subsidized apartment was her oasis. Her out-of-state niece claimed to have lost her job and asked to move in with her, which she allowed. Come to find out, her niece was a drug dealer. Mabel had no idea. Police arrested her at Mabel’s apartment, and as a result, Mabel was evicted. She will never qualify for affordable housing assistance again provided by the Public Housing Authority (PHA) because felony crimes were committed in her home. She is now living in a shelter. She is homeless.

For any person experiencing it, homelessness is not only a challenge but often a traumatic experience. For elderly people, the experience of aging exacerbates financial, health, and social challenges. In other words, being housing insecure only makes other matters associated with getting older much worse.

Homeless elders face significantly increased health challenges. Diagnosing and treating homeless seniors and older people can be difficult due to a lack of money or insurance to pay for treatment. Some older people experience distrust of health care and social service providers. Getting to public assistance programs can also be daunting to homeless elders who have limited mobility and little access to online services. Some get discouraged by lengthy application processes or ultimately refuse help.

The aging homeless population experiences high rates of diabetes and hypertension. Age also puts people at further risk for complications from COVID-19.

Understandably, other effects of poverty are amplified in older people, including emotional stress, isolation, and depression. Being without a permanent and safe home adds another layer of problems, including physical stress, walking distances, uncomfortable sleeping conditions, inadequate nutrition, and a simple lack of personal safety.

It’s not surprising that elderly people who are homeless will likely present increasing challenges for behavioral health and medical systems, including local EMS, community services, and hospital resources. Studies have demonstrated that allowing an individual to remain chronically homeless can cost taxpayers as much as $50,000 annually. 

Health isn’t the only key to well-being. In addition to health, experiencing homelessness can make it hard for older individuals to maintain social relationships. People may feel ashamed about being homeless and distance themselves from family and friends. Homeless seniors may not want to be a burden to their children, nieces, or nephews. Moreover, without a stable place to live, an address, or consistent access to a phone or the internet, people can lose contact with their support system.

With so many seniors living in poverty or on the edge of poverty, housing, medicine, or food become choices instead of necessities. Do you know what your elderly relatives live on? For many, social security is their only safety net. Subsidized senior housing is available at age 62, and Medicare and Social Security benefits are available at age 65. 

Kentucky ranks 45th in Social Security benefits. More than 618,000 retirees take Social Security, which works out to an average 2021 benefit of $1,454.10 per month and $17,449.17 for the full year. If a senior lives solely on Social Security, even with subsidized housing costs, it’s not easy to make ends meet. 

Many people want to stay in their homes but cannot take care of their properties due to upkeep and tax costs, much less afford a new roof or a repair. This is something that has a direct impact on cities as properties fall into disrepair and blight. If and when a person has chronic health issues or winds up in a nursing home, there are a range of other issues associated with housing for seniors that own their homes.

Some chronically indigent adults are unable to break the cycle of homelessness and continue to age into their senior years without stable housing. Others experience homelessness for the first time as older adults. Common and tragic causes of senior homelessness include financial difficulties, scarcity of affordable housing, long waiting lists for subsidized housing, alcohol abuse, mental health issues, and the onset of Alzheimer's disease and other dementias. Without a doubt, these challenges will only be compounded by the growth in the overall senior population.

Finally, recent statistics from the U.S. Census revealed that more than 15 million adults, or nearly one in six Americans aged 55 and older, are childless. The levels of childlessness among adults are expected to increase, meaning that more older people will be “on their own” in numbers like never before.

Affordable and stable housing for Kentuckians of all ages, including seniors, continues to grow as a challenge here in the commonwealth and across the nation. Awareness and knowing the reality and scope of the issue are the first steps to making it better.

Sources: Homeless Research Institute, InvisiblePeople.com, National Coalition for the Homeless, U.S. Census Bureau.