Put an End to Senior Homelessness
By Mel Martinez and Allyson Y. Schwartz / U.S. News / August 4, 2016
Among the most heartbreaking sights in our country today is that of older adults living on the streets. Sadly, the problem of senior homelessness is expected to worsen in the coming years, driven in part by the rapid growth in the number of seniors. Neither the United States government nor its citizens should be willing to accept that so many of its older citizens are forced to live without adequate shelter and appropriate care. To solve this problem, we need to make ending senior homelessness a national priority; engage the public and private sectors at all levels; understand that the causes of senior homelessness are often unique to their demographic; and commit to treating the problem with targeted responses.
The Homelessness Research Institute estimates that, if shelter and poverty rates remain constant, the number of homeless older adults will rise from approximately 44,000 in 2010 to about 59,000 in 2020, an increase of 33 percent. By 2050, the institute projects the senior homeless population could increase to nearly 95,000. Like their younger counterparts, the older adult homeless are high frequent users of emergency medical and other health care services. Studies have demonstrated that allowing an individual to remain chronically homeless can cost taxpayers as much as $50,000 annually.
Some chronically homeless 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 an older adult. The 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: By 2030, more than 74 million Americans will be 65 or older.
But the United States has proven that its citizens can achieve large, complex objectives when we put our minds to it. We should not accept a sharp increase in senior homelessness as the inevitable byproduct of a rapidly aging society. Preventing and ending homelessness among older adults must become a major national priority. That’s one of the chief recommendations of the Bipartisan Policy Center Senior Health and Housing Task Force, which we co-chair. To be successful, however, we need an all-hands-on-deck approach, harnessing the resources and energy of all sectors of society; federal and local governments as well as the private sector and nonprofit communities.
Reintegrating homeless people within mainstream society, offering employment and job training opportunities, are key elements of national, state and local strategies to end homelessness. Yet because many seniors are unable to return to the workforce, their reintegration calls for different strategies. A “housing first” approach that connects older adults experiencing homelessness to affordable, stable housing with supportive services has been shown to lower public costs and generate longer-term savings. Broader adoption of this approach will be even more critical as the senior ranks swell.
Goal setting, too, has been an important element of the federal government’s strategy to prevent and end homelessness. The U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness, an independent agency composed of 19 Cabinet secretaries and agency heads that acts as the command center for the federal approach to homelessness, has established goals to prevent and end homelessness among veterans by 2015 and end chronic homelessness by 2017. While we have not completely vanquished veterans’ homelessness, we have made significant progress in achieving our goals. Veterans’ homelessness has declined by 36 percent since 2010, and chronic homelessness has dropped by 31 percent. The council has also set goals to “prevent and end homelessness for families, youth, and children by 2020” and to “set a path to ending all types of homelessness.” Consistent with these efforts, the council should also explicitly adopt a goal to prevent and end homelessness among older adults.
Once a goal is set, it’s critical to track and quantify progress over time. That’s why the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s annual Point-in-Time estimates, which offer a snapshot of homelessness (both sheltered and unsheltered) on a single night in late January of each year, should take a more granular approach and monitor homelessness among individuals who are aged 50 and above and 65 and above. Currently, the estimates track homelessness only among three age groups – those under 18, those 18 to 24, and those over 24.
The path forward is clear: Preventing and ending homelessness among older adults should become a major national priority in the United States. By setting goals to end homelessness; increasing available low-income senior housing; and by understanding that the challenge requires participation from public and private partners at all levels, we can and will find ways to ensure that all U.S. seniors have the shelter and security that they deserve.