Over the river and through the woods, to grandmother’s house we go — where she lives in a car.
When thinking about homelessness, most people don’t think of senior citizens. We presume that older adults have Social Security, pensions and cozy little homes that have been paid off for years.
However, there is a small but troubling number of elderly residents of our community who do indeed live in their cars, moving from place to place to avoid neighbor complaints. Others seek out alcoves and nooks where they can stay out of the weather. Still others seek refuge at local homeless shelters.
According to Linda Terry, who coordinates the Senior Home Sharing Program at Senior Services for South Sound, homeless seniors generally try to avoid detection, but they are among us.
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The pathway to homelessness takes many routes for all age groups, including seniors. Many older adults end up out of a house as the result of economic problems — job loss, priced out of their homes, or financially wiped out by a catastrophic medical expense. Some older adults find that their intentions to “home-share” with family or friends falls apart when those relationships start to fray under close quarters. Others have been chronically homeless for years if not decades, essentially growing old on the streets.
The toughest age bracket is age 55 to 62, when many older adults feel they are too old to compete for jobs yet still too young to qualify for Social Security. And while age 55 may seem young, aging on the street takes a toll. According to numerous experts, the average life expectancy for unsheltered homeless people is 64 years. According to National Health Care for the Homeless Council, homeless people over 50 have four times the mortality rate of younger homeless people because “weathering” of unhoused people can prematurely age them by 10 to 20 years.
It is difficult to determine how many homeless older adults there are. Terry reports that she has worked with as many as 15 homeless seniors in recent times. When asked how homeless seniors accommodate themselves, Terry said, “Many try to find ways to exchange work for sleeping on a couch. Some have permanent (or reserved) beds in the homeless shelters. Many sleep in their cars. And then I see many on the street, some of whom I haven’t worked with.”
According to the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), there were 306,000 people over 50 living on the streets nationally in 2014. This represented a 20 percent increase from 2007. Data from the Thurston County Homeless Census shows there was an annual average of eight homeless people age 65 and older during the 10-year period ending in 2015.
SideWalk, a local agency that provides shelter and housing referrals, assisted more than 350 people over the age of 55 in the first half of this year, according to Jill Esbeck, the program’s manager. That’s a lot of older adults, many of whom face health and mobility challenges.
In speaking about the plight of asbestos workers, Dr. Irving Selikoff (public health advocate, 1915-1992) coined the phrase, “statistics are people with the tears wiped away.” We should never forget that we are talking about real people with real lives. Numerically, there is a small number of homeless elderly people in Thurston County. But whether we use Linda Terry’s number or SideWalk’s number, these are all people with life histories. They are grandparents, aunts and uncles. They were the clerks who sold you popcorn years ago at Yardbirds. And now they are homeless.
As a community, we may find ourselves more sympathetic to the needs of the “innocent victims” of homelessness — youth, families with children or veterans. Though senior citizens may also be on this list, some began their lives on the street as younger, single adults. Once we wipe the tears away, perhaps dry eyes will help us to see them all and to better understand all of their needs as fellow citizens of our community.
Anna Schlecht is a board member of Senior Services for South Sound and a member of the 2017 Olympian Board of Contributors. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.