By: Margot Kushel and Kevin Prindiville
July 28, 2019 —
According to the recently released 2018 point-in-time counts, every Bay Area county has seen a large increase in its homeless population. In many cases, the increases were dramatic. Alameda saw an increase of 43% over the past two years; Santa Clara saw an increase of 31%. The tally in San Francisco has been startling, too: 30%, using the same standards the city has used in past years, and 17% according to federal guidelines.
The worrisome increases obscured a reality that may be even grimmer. A rising number of homeless adults are age 50 and older.
In the early 1990s, 11% of homeless single adults in San Francisco were 50 and older. In 2003, 37% were.
Now, the numbers are much worse. Recent projections found that the number of homeless people 65 and older will triple by 2030.
The fundamental cause of homelessness is poverty and a lack of affordable housing. In California, this has taken a particular toll on older adults.
Over half of California households led by people 50-64 pay more than 30% of their household income in rent — the highest proportion in the U.S. Almost a third of renters aged 50-64 in California pay over half of their household income on rent.
Spending this much for housing means cutting back on other key expenses, such as food and health care. This leaves many with little ability to manage life’s many expensive setbacks.
Our studies have found that almost half of older homeless adults first became homeless after they turned 50. They had worked their whole lives in physically demanding, low-paying jobs. At some point later in life, they reported facing a challenge like job loss, their or their partner’s illness, or their partner’s or parent’s death. With little financial cushion, they found themselves homeless.
With rising housing costs, fewer pensions, and a fraying safety net, many older adults are one crisis away from losing the roof over their head.
This is particularly true for black Americans, who are at three to four times the risk of homelessness nationally. In San Francisco, the disparity is worse: while fewer than 6% of San Franciscans are black, 37% of those who experience homelessness are.
We can do better for the older adults suffering in our communities by using a two-pronged approach to tackle senior homelessness.
First, we need to create more affordable housing for seniors, including permanent supportive housing for those with chronic conditions, substance abuse, or mental health disorders. Second, we need to provide seniors on fixed incomes more resources to increase their economic security and stem the tide of displacement.
There are also a number of specific policies that have been proposed at the state level. All of them should be included as critical components of the Master Plan for Aging that Gov. Gavin Newsom called for in an executive order last month.
To increase the economic security of our state’s poorest seniors, we must restore the recession-era cuts to the state’s supplemental payments for the federal Supplemental Security Income (SSI) program that so many poor seniors rely on. Thanks to those cuts, California SSI recipients are living below the federal poverty level while the economy booms and many younger workers thrive.
Since health care is a large part of a senior’s monthly budget, we must also make health care more affordable by making it easier for struggling seniors to qualify for Medi-Cal. AB1088, introduced by state Assemblyman Jim Wood, D-Santa Rosa, would increase the woefully low Medi-Cal asset limits that do not allow seniors the ability to save for a crisis.
Because many seniors are pushed into homelessness after a stint in a nursing facility, we need mechanisms to help them maintain their homes while they are recovering. AB1042, also authored by Assemblyman Wood, would increase the amount of income Medi-Cal recipients can retain toward keeping their residence while in a nursing facility.
Finally, SB611, by state Sen. Anna Caballero, D-Salinas, attempts to address the specific and unique housing needs of seniors through the Housing Older Persons Effectively (HOPE) Task Force. Coupled with the governor’s new homelessness task force, this would go a long way to address homelessness among older adults.
This is by no means an exhaustive list. There are many other actions that the state and local counties and cities can and must take to address this growing epidemic.
With targeted investments that create affordable housing for older adults and measures that will increase the economic security of low-income seniors, California can buck the nationwide trend of rising older adult homelessness.
Together, we can build a vibrant state where all of us can have safe, stable housing in our later years.
Margot Kushel is a professor of medicine at Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital and director of the UCSF Center for Vulnerable Populations. Kevin Prindiville is the executive director of Justice in Aging, a national nonprofit organization that fights senior poverty through legal advocacy.