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 which frequently falls between the cracks of governmental safety nets. They are not old enough to qualify for Medicare, however, when their physical health is assaulted by poor nutrition and severe living conditions they may eventually resemble someone much older.
There is a relatively low percentage of ‘elder’ (aged 65 and over) homeless persons’ among the current homeless population. This smaller proportion may be due to the increased availability of successful safety net programs, which only kick-in at a certain age including:
- Subsidized housing – Available at age 62
- Medicare – Available at age 65
- Social Security benefits – Available at age 65
Unhoused older adults face some serious challenges to their well-being relative to younger adults. Homeless persons between ages 50 and 62 often have similar healthcare needs to housed persons 10-20 years older.
Studies show that older homeless adults have higher rates of geriatric syndromes, including problems performing daily activities, walking, vision and hearing, as well as falls and frailty when compared to the general population.
Older homeless people are also more likely to suffer from cognitive impairments compared to younger homeless adults – Older homeless are likely to suffer from impairments resulting from depression or dementia, which can contribute to the worsening of their physical health.
Isolation also contributes to homelessness among older persons. In a 2004 survey, half of the recipients of Supplemental Security Income (SSI) that were 50 years and older had been living alone before losing their homes.
Gaps in Benefits
- Many older homeless persons are entitled to Social Security benefits. However, these benefits often fail to cover the cost of housing.
- In 2010, the monthly SSI payment for an individual was $703 – well below the poverty line.
- Research based on that figure shows that generally a person receiving SSI support cannot afford housing. A person receiving SSI support would have to pay 112% of that income to rent a one-bedroom apartment, or 99% for a studio/efficiency apartment.
- The SSI payment is intended not only to pay for housing, but to supplement the costs of other basic needs. If SSI represented an individual’s entire income and the average costs of other essentials were subtracted, then $181 would be an affordable rental price for housing.
Lack of Affordable Housing
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 nation-wide. Furthermore, the waiting list for affordable senior housing is often three to five years.
Greater recognition of the older/elder homelessness issue is needed. Federal, state, and local authorities, as well as nonprofit service providers, have to be made aware of the specific needs and challenges faced by older adults and elderly persons who are homeless. For instance:
- Older homeless adults are best served by professionals who understand geriatric healthcare principles and who are sensitive to the fears and concerns of older individuals.
- Expanding the range of targeted populations eligible for supportive services to include more older homeless persons' under the age of 65 will help bridge the gap in benefit accessibility.
- Invest in permanent supportive housing.
- The National Leadership Initiative to End Elder Homelessness reported that developing supportive housing represents “the first step towards stabilization of physical and mental health” for older and elderly homeless persons. Without supportive housing, healthcare is likely to be received intermittently in emergency rooms and other crisis oriented health facilities, which is more expensive and results in fragmented care.
Publications and Documents
- Economic Security Database - Elder Index
- The Corporation for Supportive Housing (CSH) - Best Practices for Serving Aging Tenants & Financing and Delivering Comprehensive Supportive Housing Services for Older Adults and Seniors Webinar
- The Substance Abuse & Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) - Homeless Populations: Elderly
- Center for Retirement Research at Boston College
- National Leadership Initiative (NLI) - Ending Homelessness Among Older Adults and Seniors Through Supportive Housing
- Institute for Aging Research - Institute for Aging Research shows Boston's Elderly Homeless Sicker than Others
- National Alliance to End Homelessness - Helping Chronically Homeless People Avoid High-Cost Health Care
- National Alliance to End Homelessness - Demographics of Homelessness Series: The Rising Elderly Population
- Shelter Partnership, Inc: Homeless Older Adults Strategic Plan