On a single night in January, about 1,079 older adults – those 55 and over – were homeless in Sacramento County, according to the results of the latest federally mandated census count.
About 700 of them were living outside, on the streets or beneath an underpass, or in an tent encampment. Seniors were more likely to sleep in the elements compared to the general homeless population in the county, the report found.
The trend is particularly troubling for county officials and experts, who are becoming increasingly concerned over how the state’s growing senior population will intertwine with California’s ongoing homeless crisis. Older residents are more vulnerable in almost every way while living on the streets – “physically, emotionally, cognitively, “ said Will Tift, assistant director of the Agency on Aging Area 4
“This is a different narrative, one we haven’t seen before,” Tift said. “It’s unacceptable, and really represents a failure of continuum of care for all older people.”
For Sacramento County Board of Supervisors Chair Patrick Kennedy, finding out that those 55 and older made up one of the fastest growing homeless groups was one of the most “disturbing” aspects of the recent point-in-time count, released Wednesday.
Ten years from now, the 60-and-over population will be 40 percent larger than it is now, according to the California Department of Aging. Already, about 1 in 6 California adults over age 60 live below the poverty line, and 1 in 5 live poor or near poor.
And these older adults, on fixed incomes such as disability or Social Security, or with chronic and expensive health issues, are among the most at risk for sliding into homelessness, said Megan Hustings with the National Coalition for the Homeless. And once they are homeless, the outdoor elements will worsen their existing health problems.
“We have people say this ‘silver tsunami’ is coming, and the increasing challenge with low fixed income is trying to figure out how to make ends meet,” said Sacramento County Supervisor Sue Frost.
Elderly homeless people may have less mobility, less stamina, and be more susceptible to dehydration in the summer months. If they manage to find a temporary shelter, they may have their medication stolen, be bullied, or struggle to find social workers trained to handle oxygen tanks and medical equipment, Tift said.
Among the older homeless people living on the streets of Sacramento is Michael Matlock, 58.
While he wasn’t disabled when he first became homeless nearly 20 years ago, he has since developed severe health issues. He has hearing problems, cupping his hands around his ears when he converses with friends or strangers. The bones in his lower back aren’t aligned, he said, and he has trouble moving his legs. He gets around in a dusty red electric scooter.
Three weeks ago while staying in the hospital, Matlock was approached by homeless services advocates from the county to get him housed, he said.
“They said they’ll get a hold of me whenever they get something, but you know how long that takes,” he said, chuckling.
While Matlock is open to assistance, many more may be less inclined. Officials say seniors, and particularly baby boomers, are not doing enough to prepare for aging, with a proud history of independence and self-sufficiency.
“For many of the seniors, it’s a dignity thing,” Frost said, “to not accept handouts.”
Though the county offers many social services for seniors including CalFresh assistance, Meals on Wheels, financial planning workshops, discounted public transit and some subsidized housing, “the challenge is making sure they’re aware that they’re there for them,” Frost added.
But virtually none of the county’s multimillion-dollar initiatives to tackle homelessness specifically target seniors who have already lost their homes or who are aging into their later years of life on the streets.
A senior safe house through Volunteers of America currently offers eight beds, and an additional safe house is planned in Elk Grove, Tift said. It’s a great model, he said, but “we need more of that.”
“Half the folks coming in there are homeless, and half coming out are homeless. We try hard to place them but...” Tift said, not finishing the sentence.