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How COVID-19 is Impacting Older Adults Experiencing Homelessness

Tents housing homeless over a bridge | iStock
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Published in partnership with the USC Price Center for Social Innovation in support of the Neighborhood Data for Social Change platform (NDSC): The platform is a free, publicly available online data resource that provides reliable, aggregated data at the city, neighborhood, and census tract level. The mission of the USC Price Center for Social Innovation is to develop ideas and illuminate strategies to improve the quality of life for people in low-income urban communities.

An encampment of homeless at a parking lot | iStock
An encampment of homeless at a parking lot.

Across the nation, the population experiencing homelessness is getting older. The end of the Baby Boomer generation (those born between 1955 and 1964) have faced homelessness at higher rates than other generational cohorts for decades. Although it is difficult to point to a single cause, researchers note that these Baby Boomers first entered the workforce as young adults during two recessions in the late 1970s and early 1980s. The ensuing high unemployment rates, depressed wages and rising housing costs would have been particularly difficult for young people with no work experience or significant savings to navigate, and would have been even more difficult for young Black people. Further, because the Baby Boomer generation was the largest in history at that point, the social safety net became quickly strained. As of this year, all Baby Boomers are over the age of 55, and those experiencing homelessness face several challenges that are further exacerbated by the COVID-19 crisis.

Older Adults Experiencing Homelessness 

Tents housing homeless over a bridge | iStock
Tents housing homeless over a bridge.

According to the 2020 Greater Los Angeles Homeless Count, there are 14,896 older adults (ages 55 and older) experiencing homelessness, both sheltered and unsheltered, in the Los Angeles Continuum of Care (LAHSA, 2020). This age group makes up over a quarter of the population experiencing homelessness in Los Angeles County, and 85% of this cohort are unsheltered. Older adults experiencing homelessness in Los Angeles disproportionately identify as Black and male and experience chronic homelessness at higher rates than the general homeless population (LAHSA, 2018). Chronic homelessness describes people who have experienced homelessness for at least a year — or more than four times in the past three years — while struggling with a disabling condition such as a serious mental illness, substance use disorder or physical disability. The map and chart below show the population of older adults across Los Angeles County.

Homelessness and COVID-19

A woman is swabbed to test for COVID-19 | iStock
A woman is swabbed to test for COVID-19.

Older adults experiencing homelessness have more medical needs than housed older adults, and experience “geriatric medical conditions” (such as decreased mobility and cognitive decline) at a much younger age than their housed peers (Brown et al., 2017; Brown, Kiely, Bharel, & Mitchell, 2012). The COVID-19 pandemic puts this already vulnerable population further at risk of serious health complications. The highest mortality rate for the virus is in people over the age of 65, and 72% of deaths from the disease occur in those over the age of 50 (LA Country DPH).

What Comes Next? 

Two drive-thru COVID-19 testing sites | iStock
Two drive-thru COVID-19 testing sites.

Without renewed federal funding, the State of California will not be able to continue Project Roomkey. With COVID showing no signs of slowing down, officials are planning to ensure that the thousands of people sheltered through the program don’t return to the street when Project Roomkey funding runs out. The California Department of Housing and Community Development is allocating $550 million in federal COVID-relief funding to local governments to purchase and rehabilitate hotels, motels and other unoccupied buildings to convert them into either interim or permanent housing for people experiencing homelessness (CDHCD, 2020). Alternatively, the county could provide rental subsidies, similar to the Housing Choice Voucher Program, to people covered by Project Roomkey in order for them to find alternative housing. A last resort could be to build more congregate shelters, ensuring that there is at least one shelter in every neighborhood, although shelters present challenges for social distancing.

Evidence shows that obtaining housing, especially permanent supportive housing, improves health outcomes for older adults experiencing homelessness (National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine, 2018) (Bamberger & Dobbins, 2015). Permanent supportive housing is a program that combines subsidized housing with supportive services like physical and mental healthcare. Like all types of housing in Los Angeles County, there is not enough supply of permanent supportive housing units, nor subsidies to house people in the units, to meet demand. The City and County of Los Angeles plan to build over 10,000 permanent supportive housing units by 2025 using funding from Proposition HHH passed in 2016 (LAHSA, 2020). During the 2019-2020 fiscal year, over 700 permanent supportive housing units opened and an additional 2,300 are set to open during this fiscal year.

Older adults experiencing homelessness are a growing population that is particularly vulnerable to contracting and dying from COVID-19. Local government agencies and service providers are working tirelessly on both short term solutions like Project Roomkey and long term solutions like increasing the supportive housing supply to ensure that our aging unhoused neighbors can find safety during this unprecedented health crisis.

View the latest information from the Greater Los Angeles Homeless Count for your neighborhood on the NDSC platform.


Bamberger, Joshua D; Dobbins, Sarah (July 2014). Long-term Cost Effectiveness of Placing Homeless Seniors in Permanent Supportive Housing (Working Paper 2014-01). Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco. 

California Department of Housing and Community Development (May 18, 2020). Homekey.

Carillo, Jose; United Latinx Fund (May 18, 2020). Project Roomkey: Continuing to Address the Coronavirus

Center for Disease Control and Prevention (April 30, 2020). Health Equity Considerations and Racial and Ethnic Minority Groups.

Culhane, Dennis P.; Metraux, Stephen; Kuhn, Randall (2018). A Data-based Re-design of Housing Supports and Services for Aging Adults who Experience Homelessness

Krieger, Nancy (April 16, 2020). COVID-19, Data, and Health Justice | Commonwealth Fund

Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (June 12, 2020). Greater Los Angeles Homeless Count [Slides]. 

Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (May 13, 2020). COVID-19 Racial Equity Resource Guide [Slides]. 

Los Angeles Times (July 30, 2020). Tracking the L.A. homeless coronavirus protection effort.

National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine; Health and Medicine Division; Board on Population Health and Public Health Practice; Policy and Global Affairs; Science and Technology for Sustainability Program; Committee on an Evaluation of Permanent Supportive Housing Programs for Homeless Individuals. Washington (DC): National Academies Press (US); 2018 Jul 11.

Newton, Damien (2020, June 19). Thousands Housed in Project Roomkey in Los Angeles, but NIMBYism, Lack of Permanent Affordable Housing Blunt Progress.

Office of Governor Gavin Newsom (June 30, 2020). Governor Newsom Visits Project Roomkey Site in Bay Area to Announce “Homekey,” the Next Phase in State’s COVID-19 Response to Protect Homeless Californians

Smith, Doug; Oreskes, Benjamin; Holland,Gale (2020, June 22). L.A. falls short on COVID-19 homeless hotel housing promise

Tinoco, Matt (June 9, 2020). Project Roomkey Has Placed 9,400 Homeless People Into Temporary Hotel Rooms. Now What?

Top Image: Tents housing homeless over a bridge.

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