The Way Home, a special episode of SoCal Connected, will examine sustainable solutions for ending homelessness, including permanent supportive housing for the 47,000 homeless in Los Angeles. See airdates.
Wanda Clarke, 63, never saw it coming. She lived in Los Angeles for six decades. Now for the first time she was stranded on the sidewalks of South Central. “It was devastating. I’m 60-something years old. I should not be homeless.” But when her husband died of complications from multiple heart attacks, she could no longer afford her mortgage on a single income cashiering at Vons.
Surviving homelessness is a struggle at any age, but for a graying generation it can be brutal. Realities such as fewer job opportunities, diminished income, rising medical costs and infirmity can make homelessness both easier to fall into and harder to escape.
Steve Renahan, a senior policy advisor at the nonprofit Shelter Partnership, has studied the older homeless population in depth. When asked if he thinks their increasing numbers will soon reach crisis levels, he said they already have.
There are over 10,000 people 55 years and older living on the streets of L.A. County. That’s more than double what it was a decade ago. These are the first of the baby boomers. With thousands more retiring every day, we can expect to see that figure grow significantly.
Renahan says that one reason boomers show higher rates of homelessness may be because they have faced more competition from their peers in the workforce. As a result, they have performed worse economically overall compared to their parents or children. So when fixed retirement incomes—such as social security or pensions—and skyrocketing housing costs are layered on top of mediocre lifetime economic performance, we have a recipe for the current crisis.
Look at the basic numbers. The median monthly rent for a one-bedroom apartment in Los Angeles is $2000. The average social security benefit in California is only $1224 a month. For thirty percent of California retirees Social Security is their only source of income. It’s no wonder we’re seeing more elderly Angelenos making their homes on the street.
“You can either eat or you can pay rent, but you can’t do both,” says Robert, 68, who makes his home around Sunset and Vine in Hollywood. He retired at 62 and only receives $994 a month in social security benefits, which wasn’t enough to cover the rent where he had lived for 30 years in Santa Monica. In an interview with Mark Horvath from InvisiblePeople.tv, he says at his age he has no future. “My only future would be if I went back to work. I’m a mechanical engineering technician. There isn’t a lot of work in that area anymore.”
Laura Trejo, general manager of the Los Angeles Department of Aging, says they are trying to get homeless seniors back in the workforce with a pilot study called the Older Workers Employment Program, which provides job training and connects them with potential employers.
Karen Prater, 62, is one of their success stories. When she lost her job caring for dementia patients, she was the one who needed care. She says she couldn’t find work because most employers weren’t interested in hiring someone her age.
Unable to afford housing on her own, she decided not to “burden her family” and opted to live in shelters. A year and a couple shelters later, she heard about the pilot program. After signing up, she landed a temporary job for the city department of disability and also found an apartment.
So far the program has found jobs for Karen and several other participants. But, even if it works on a larger scale, it’s not enough to stop what some have termed the “silver tsunami” of retirees who could flood our streets, unable to keep up with the cost of living.
The social stigma of homelessness also contributes to the problem. Wanda from South Central was ashamed and embarrassed by her situation. Her son, who lives in Orange County, still has no idea she was homeless.
“Living on the street is no joke. You don’t have a place to shower, to go to the bathroom,” explains Wanda. On the streets, she reached a point where she no longer wanted to live. Luckily she was able to see a psychiatrist. Then her case manager found her a rare vacancy at the NoHo Senior Villas in North Hollywood, an affordable apartment building run by Clifford Beers Housing. The apartment building was co-developed by PATH, People Assisting The Homeless. They provide Wanda and others at the Villas with crucial supportive services to make sure they doesn’t slip into homelessness again.
Wanda thanks God everyday from the balcony of her apartment. “I’m going to be here until I’m 105, exactly. Enjoying life because it’s a low-income building. [Rent is] a third of my income. I have money left over out of my check to spoil me.”
So what else are local officials doing to help the bulk of homeless seniors who aren’t as fortunate? The L.A. County Board of Supervisors, Mayor Garcetti and almost every other elected official are pinning their hopes on recently passed Measure HHH for homeless housing. They are also hoping that voters will approve Measure H, the sales tax hike on the March 7th ballot, which would create revenue to pay for homeless social services over the next ten years.
But Measure H is no guarantee in an election that will feature lower turnout, a more conservative county electorate and a two-thirds majority to pass.
In the meantime, expect the homeless population to include more aging baby boomers on fixed incomes who are forced to live out their ‘golden’ years in shelters and on the streets.