By Steve Moran
And they are forcing me to reevaluate a position I once held.
Shocking But True
- In 2007, 16.5% of people in shelters were 51 and older. Ten years later, in 2017, 23% were.
- In some places, around half of homeless adults were homeless for the first time after they turned 50.
- Half of homeless single adults in the U.S. are over 50.
- In California, there were 7% more seniors in 2021 than in 2017. But 84% more people 55 and older sought services for homelessness.
- The Fresno-Madera (central California) area has seen a huge jump in the 55-plus homeless population, increasing a whopping 216% from 2017 to 2021.
(Sources listed at the bottom of the article.)
When you slice and dice the aging population, this is scary stuff.
In 2019 National Investment Center for Seniors Housing and Care (NIC) released their middle market report to great fanfare. It was updated in 2022. I found both studies to be interesting but felt that they overstated the scope of the problem, for a number of reasons — including that at the time when the study was done, there were a bunch of middle market seniors who were living in community, and that it didn’t take into account the geographical differences in cost.
In this country we now have a whole bunch of older people who worked very hard their whole lives at relatively low paying but important jobs, who saved very little if anything, and who are only eligible for small Social Security payments.
The average monthly amount that age 65 retirees in 2023 are getting from Social Security is $1,682. Those who wait until age 70 are collecting $1,981. A better number to look at, though, is the median. The median for 65-year-olds is $1,544, and for 70-year-olds $1,782.
So this means fully half of those retiring this year will receive less than $1,544 or $1,782. Those are pretty tough numbers to swallow if you are trying to live independently.
When you get to the human level and hear the stories of people who are stuck, who become homeless for the first time after age 50 or 60 or 70, it is heart wrenching. It is easy to look at the homeless problem, the tents, the mess they make, the crimes they commit and think “irresponsible drug addicts” or “those poor people with mental health problems.”
But what is beginning to happen is that those older people who are working as cashiers at your local McDonald’s, Starbucks, and 7-Elevens are the ones ending up on the streets. These are the people who accepted low wages that made it possible for our coffees, burgers, and burritos to not cost twice as much.
The crisis has been compounded by increasing regulations that make the construction of housing much more difficult, time-consuming, and costly. Worse, in many cases, these young old have had inadequate health care and need more services.
A Time to Rethink
This is a problem that is much bigger than something senior living can fix. It will likely need massive retooling of how we think about older people, about how we spend government money, about what adequate housing for older people who have no money looks like.
Several years ago, we vacationed in Turkey, and I asked the guide if she could set up a visit to one or two senior living communities. We were able to visit two, and honestly, by today’s standards in North America, they would seem primitive, perhaps even barbaric. Three to eight beds in a room with a small nightstand and storage area. Looking more like military barracks than anything else I can think of.
Yet the residents were happy, spending most of their time in the community, and the cost was affordable.
I have this vision of some senior living operator working with state and local governments and maybe a PACE program to create something that does not look very much like anything we call senior living today, but is a lot better than tents and broken down RVs and cars on the street.
This is a crisis, but it is also an opportunity.