By Frank J. Mecca
March 10, 2020 —
A woman in her late 70s receives an eviction notice from her mobile home park. She’s fallen victim to a financial scam and is several months behind on her rent. She’s unable to care for herself and living in squalor. A neighbor calls county Adult Protective Services and the agency delivers exactly what is needed to prevent this senior from becoming homeless: a subsidy to help with rent until her financial situation is resolved, a home care worker to assist with daily living and a case manager who will look out for future signs she’s in trouble.
In his unprecedented State of the State address and bold proposal to invest $750 million this year in stabilizing and expanding housing for the most vulnerable, Gov. Gavin Newsom has aligned the Capitol’s agenda with the public’s top priority — ending the emergency of homelessness. With older adults the fastest-growing segment of California’s homeless population, expanding programs provided by Adult Protective Services that successfully prevent at-risk elder Californians from falling through the cracks must be a key part of state’s homelessness strategy.
A recent study from UC San Francisco expert Dr. Margot Kushel found people over 50 now account for half of unhoused adults – a four-fold increase since 1990 when 11% of homeless adults were over 50. Older people already living on the financial edge after decades of working in low-wage jobs and with little or no savings or retirement income can be quickly de-stabilized by a rent increase, or injury or death of a partner or caregiver. Kushel found nearly half of unhoused older people experienced their first episode of homelessness after age 50.
Underscoring California’s need to focus on homelessness prevention for our older population, the data show California will face a “tidal wave” of people in their 50s, 60s and 70s living on our streets in the coming years. They are likely to experience geriatric conditions, such as dementia and heart conditions, typical of seniors 20 years older. In the words of Kushel, “50 is the new 70” for our homeless population.
Stemming the tide requires a combination of housing and aging expertise, which is why Newsom’s task force recommended a $100 million expansion of Adult Protective Services programs as part of a comprehensive strategy to curb homelessness. This expansion would enable Adult Protective Services to reach 30,000 more older adults each year who are homeless or at high risk by hiring 350 additional social workers, lowering the eligibility age to 60, and taking the “Home Safe” rental assistance program – now in 25 counties — statewide.
If Newsom and the Legislature support this proposal, county Adult Protective Services agencies could make a difference for a 63-year-old man who lives with a traumatic brain injury and was kicked out of his home by a relative. Two years too young under current eligibility rules for Adult Protective Services programs and with no other relatives who can care for him, he’s increasingly likely to become one of the seniors Newsom talks of “living unfed on a concrete bed.” Other seniors facing similar situations make the difficult choice to remain with abusive relatives rather than the alternative — living in a tent, car or doorway.
Newsom has proposed more in-depth study into the root causes of homelessness, with the goal of developing short-term and longer-term strategies to combat the housing crisis. County human services agencies tasked with helping vulnerable Californians become self-sufficient welcome more data that will allow us to effectively target our resources and be even more effective at delivering services to prevent and end homelessness.
Meanwhile, we know enough now to see that early intervention is an urgent imperative. We know older adults are among the highest risk of becoming homeless – and we know Adult Protective Services programs mean the difference between life at home or death on the streets.