America's homelessness crisis is facing ageing question - GulfToday

America's homelessness crisis is facing ageing question

The state of Washington has been recording a consistent increase in homelessness since 2020.

The state of Washington has been recording a consistent increase in homelessness since 2020.

As Donald Trump and President Joe Biden continue their 2024 campaigns, Americans are asking difficult questions about ageing: What does it mean when each nominee is over the age of 75? How will the impacts of aging affect their abilities to serve? Meanwhile, those on the frontlines of America’s homelessness crisis are facing the ageing question not from the perspective of the powerful and well-connected, but from the perspective of those with the fewest protections.

Older adults are the fastest growing age demographic of people experiencing homelessness. The latest federal data indicates that over 138,000 adults aged 55 and older were experiencing homelessness on a given night in 2023. Almost half were living on the streets or in locations not meant for human habitation. As a society, this shift should force us all to reconsider our assumptions about who becomes homeless and why.

Stereotypes and misinformation are pernicious forces working against the efforts to end homelessness. Despite clear evidence that a prolonged nationwide affordable housing crisis is the primary driver of homelessness, many find it easier to embrace oversimplified narratives about addiction and mental illness. Despite proof that the nation’s social safety net insufficiently serves the nation’s most vulnerable, we insist on narratives that personal decisions are the cause of homelessness. Despite our nation’s history of racist housing policies, many deny that racial inequities cause Black and Brown people to disproportionately experience homelessness.

How do we reconcile those stereotypes against a wave of homeless older adults, a population we should honor and protect?

To start, we must come to understand their experiences. On one hand, there is a cohort of people that is growing old on the streets. They have cycled in and out of homelessness for years, struggling to access consistent employment and housing. Their experiences have prematurely aged them, bringing the onset of chronic diseases that often go untreated to the point of medical crisis. But there is an equally alarming trend of people who are becoming homeless for the first time in their older years.

Many have been financially insecure and precariously housed throughout their lives. Some have lost a partner or spouse, leaving them without needed income. Others have had their finances ravaged by health care costs, financial scams, predatory lending and the increasingly high costs of meeting their most basic needs. They are all suffering the effects of a frayed social safety net and rental market that is out of reach.

Unfortunately, their public benefits just don’t go far enough today: Although Social Security benefits increased by 8.7% in 2022, increases rarely topped 3% in the previous 30 years. Similarly, Supplemental Security Income has lagged far behind the cost of living, offering a mere average benefit of $552.29 in 2023. Meanwhile, health care costs force low-income Medicare patients to spend more of their limited income on premiums and other costs. And, of course, the cost of housing has increased for decades. These costs — particularly crushing since the COVID-19 pandemic — left older adults with fewer affordable units, and less income to pay for rent. A new analysis confirms that the nation is short 7.3 million units of affordable and available housing for the lowest income renters.

Without immediate action, these forces will drive more and more of our elders into a homelessness system that cannot adequately care for them. Fortunately, our leaders can take action.

As a first step, Congress must ensure that all seniors have a place to live, with the supports to age in place. The best investment Congress can make is to expand the Housing Choice Voucher (Section 8 Housing) Program, which currently only serves about one quarter of the people in need of housing assistance. Similarly, investments in rental assistance programs would keep older adults (and other low-income Americans) in their homes.

Likewise, federal leaders must increase their support for housing programs that serve elders. Three important programs include the Section 202 Supportive Housing for the Elderly program, the USDA 515 Rural Rental Housing program, and the Section 811 Supportive Housing for Persons with Disabilities program. These programs were not consistently supported in the most recent federal budget; they will all need robust funding in the future if we intend to stem the flow of elders into homelessness.

Efforts will be even more successful if federal leaders also support programs that address the poverty rate among older adults, as well as programs that provide in-home support like home and community-based services.

Unfortunately, it isn’t enough to just stop the flow. Leaders must also commit the resources to ensure that homeless systems can meet the needs of an aging population. That includes investments in nursing home offerings and long term, respite, and in-home care. Medicaid expansion states are well positioned to fund these efforts.

Tribune News Service


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