What About Maria? We Need a Federal Plan More Focused on Homelessness Among Older Adults

February 26, 2019

I keep in my “homelessness” file an NPR story of a 75-year-old woman, Maria, who is on a waiting list for affordable housing. She lives in her car. Her town could not meet its shortage of affordable homes with housing assistance, so it responded by sanctioning living in cars in certain parking lots. I think about Maria a lot.

Of course, Maria is not alone in her experience.

I felt deflated when I read in a recent HUD report that the share of older adults experiencing homelessness almost doubled over the last decade. In every year for the last 10 years, the percentage of those experiencing homelessness who were 62 or older increased, almost doubling from 4.1% to 8% between 2007 and 2017.

Looking back over Home, Together, the federal strategic plan to prevent and end homelessness, I searched for where Maria fit into it. No specific goal for ending homelessness among older adults? Disappointing. I decided to focus on the Plan’s real gift: solutions and strategies for ending homelessness.

Recent data tell us that the increase in homelessness among adults 50 and older cannot be explained by the increasing population of older adults in general, or their rising rates of living in poverty. The reason, it seems to me, is the persistent and significant shortage of housing affordable to older adult households with the lowest incomes. Only one of every three older adults receives the housing assistance they are eligible for. Remarkably, 66% of the 2013 – 2015 increase of households with worst case housing needs (renters spending more than half of their incomes on housing) were among older adults.

To be successful in the Plan’s first objective, ensuring homelessness is a rare experience, we must dramatically increase the supply of affordable housing.

It’s well past time for Maria to be in an affordable, accessible home. Developing multifamily housing that can provide affordable, accessible homes while also acting as the platform for service coordination and delivery is the smart answer. Programs fine-tuned to the needs of older adults, like HUD’s Section 202 Housing for the Elderly Program, which Congress recently revived, can meet this need if significantly expanded.

As good as the Plan is, older adults cannot live in collaborations or data systems or the education of partners. We live in homes. For homes, we need resources. Thus, we turn to how we use our tax dollars, the need for government-supported programs, and an amazing network of sophisticated partners, to build and preserve quality homes. LeadingAge’s membership of nonprofit providers of the continuum of aging services, including affordable housing for older adults, are advocating for housing layered with service supports that will not only provide housing for Maria, but will also improve Maria’s access to health care and lower the public’s health care costs.

As you might imagine, experiencing homelessness as an older adult is different than for a younger person. According to Justice in Aging , premature aging, accessibility challenges, crime, trouble accessing benefits, and the risk of institutionalization are all special considerations for older adults experiencing homelessness. Housing and homelessness allies must better understand how to navigate these complexities.

As we learn each other’s worlds, the aging services community can help inform future Plans, which can be more explicit in the tools and resources offered.

As the “graying of America’s homeless” shows no immediate sign of abatement, I know a Plan will come to us before long, as it should, with repeated references to connecting to service coordinators within HUD-assisted housing, to Area Agencies on Aging, to the array of state and local organizations that administer services and support programs authorized under the Older Americans Act, to age friendly community programs, and to successful aging in place efforts.

I believe we’ll also see a future Plan reach for outcome goals like accessible housing, access to health supports from stable housing, and no more unnecessary moves into nursing homes solely because no other housing was affordable and available. Such outcome goals would bring the Plan, which is heavily focused on the excellent objectives of job training, employment opportunities, and high-quality education as essential for households’ lasting stability and success, into today’s America, where more than half of the nation’s households are headed by someone at least 50 years of age.

When Maria reads that future Plan, she’ll know we are thinking of her.

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