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The Nation's Homeless Population Is Aging Dramatically

As with society as a whole, the homeless population is naturally aging. But now more people are falling into homelessness for the first time in their later years due to high housing costs.

Julia Laymance, an Oregon woman who has been homeless
Julia Laymance spent several months living in and out of homeless shelters. She blames the experience on jail time for an unpaid parking ticket.
(David Kidd)
In Brief:
  • Rising housing costs and fixed incomes mean that more elderly people are experiencing homelessness.

  • People over the age of 50 used to make up about 10 percent of the homeless population. Now, it's close to half.

  • Physical and mental decline affects elderly individuals at higher rates and is made worse through the experiences of homelessness.

  • On a single night in 2023, 138,089 people above the age of 55 experienced homelessness. The annual point-in-time count of the homeless population is not a perfect measurement, but it's clear that increasing numbers of older Americans are homeless.

    Over the past 30 years, in fact, the homeless population has gotten substantially older. The percentage of homeless single adults aged 50 or older has climbed steadily, from 11 percent in the early 1990s to 37 percent in 2003, and now to nearly 50 percent in the 2020s. The population of homeless individuals who are 65 or older is predicted to more than double by 2030.

    The elderly homeless are comprised of two main groups. The first include those who have aged into homelessness after already having experienced one or more periods of homelessness. The second are those who enter homelessness for the first time in old age, often due to a life change such as the death of a spouse or parent that they lived with. One study of older adults in California found that people who become homeless for the first time at 50 or later were about 60 percent more likely to die than those who had been homeless previously.

    There's a cyclical relationship between high rates of homelessness and high rents, according to an analysis from the Pew Charitable Trusts. Nationwide increases in housing costs are the primary factor behind the country’s increasing homeless population, with elderly people facing often unmanageable cost-of-living increases.

    Many elderly Americans live on a fixed income, with 90 percent of adults over 65 receiving a Social Security benefit. The average monthly Social Security benefit currently hovers around $1,826. According to the Rent Group's Rent Report for February 2024, the median price of an apartment was $1,981. That number rockets up in major metropolitan areas such as New York ($4,165), Boston ($3,775) and Los Angeles ($3,503).

    In California, where the average Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefit amount is $1,183 a month, there are no counties where someone on a pension can afford a studio apartment, according to Justice in Aging, a legal advocacy group. Despite yearly cost-of-living adjustments to Social Security benefits, seniors’ incomes are quickly outpaced by these costs, and they can’t easily re-enter the workforce, especially in cases where they did heavy labor.
    A homeless man near a freeway in Oakland
    Being homeless is difficult for everyone but can impose a heavy toll on people who are middle-aged and older.
    (David Kidd}

    What Governments Can Do

    States and cities are trying to meet the needs of these populations and get elderly Americans off the street and into homes or shelters. But the increasing population of elderly homeless people present unique challenges that make. Elderly people require more physical and mental health care. And being homeless ages people quickly. “Fifty is the new 75,” according to Margot Kushel, a physician who directs a homelessness and housing program at the University of California, San Francisco.

    Solutions for closing housing gaps — whether temporary ones like shelters and transitional housing or long-term affordable housing — often fall short of meeting the needs of elders. As they age, people need more accessible housing. “The challenge in serving [homeless elders] is finding units that are accessible, available and affordable,” shares Yolanda Stevens, a program and policy analyst with the National Alliance to End Homelessness.

    Waiting lists for housing are often quite long and may not even be open for new applicants. Everyone in a shelter may be expected to use shared bathrooms or to sleep on bunk beds. There may not be room for wheelchair users to maneuver, or may have stairs for exiting or entering parts of the shelter. In affordable housing, bathrooms often aren’t built with the elderly in mind, for example in lacking grab bars in the bathroom to prevent falls.

    And affordable housing doesn’t always stay affordable. “Seniors living in low-income tax credit housing are not protected from steep rent hikes that make this publicly supported housing unaffordable,” says Patti Prunhuber, Justice in Aging's director of housing advocacy. “But states can adopt rent caps that protect older low-income tenants from precipitous rent increases."

    Then there's the persistent problem of funding. Even with the most successful programs, creating accessible housing and connecting homeless individuals with resources that fit their needs both cost money.
    Zina Hutton is a staff writer for Governing. She has been a freelance culture writer, researcher and copywriter since 2015. In 2021, she started writing for Teen Vogue. Now, at Governing, Zina focuses on state and local finance, workforce, education and management and administration news.
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