Velvelyn Brown is 70 years old and homeless, and some days she thinks she “might as well just be dead.”
Standing about 5 feet tall, she’s a fiery black woman with a quick little laugh and a list of troubles that piled on in recent years, leaving her living in a sport-utility vehicle that she’s still making payments on.
“I can’t just keep saying, ‘Girl, I am going to get myself together,’ ” she said. “I can’t keep doing it.”
Along with her two pincher-Pomeranian mixes, Keseff and Lizzy, Brown has been sleeping in her vehicle for about three months, she said. Her predicament highlights the particular problems of an elderly population of homeless that is often overlooked, and that can challenge the systems meant to help them.
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Twenty-three percent of unsheltered people in Sacramento are between the ages of 55 and 64, according to the most recent report from Sacramento Steps Forward, the agency charged with coordinating homeless efforts for the city and county. The report didn’t find any people older than 64 living on the street during its one-night canvass, but the agency has statistics based on people it deals with throughout the year and has seen a slight uptick in homeless people over the age of 62.
In 2015, the agency was working with 221 people over 62. That jumped to 247 in 2016 and is at 231 so far this year.
Homeless advocate Bob Erlenbusch tracks homeless deaths in Sacramento and found nine people over the age of 60 who died on Sacramento streets in 2016, accounting for 18 percent of all deaths of homeless people in the city. Five of those were over 65, he said.
He said he expects the number of elderly people on the street to increase.
“With the continued gentrification of downtown and increasing rents and seniors being on a fixed income and not being able to afford those increases, I feel pretty strongly that … we’ll see more senior homeless people,” he said.
While a large percentage of homeless people face mental illness or drug addiction, Brown’s problems are more closely tied to the common physical and mental declines of aging.
“As people get older the gerontological needs of seniors get different, and the same is true of homeless people,” Erlenbusch said.
A few years ago, Brown lost feeling in her right side and thought she’d had a stroke. Her doctor – she is covered by Medi-Cal and Medicare – figured out that something had gone wrong with an old back surgery that had fused two vertebrae together. She’s in physical therapy for it, but she still has mobility issues and has a hard time lifting her right leg to go up steps.
She said her doctor suggested she may be having a cognitive decline, though she hates the label and says it’s just the stress of the streets.
“There is nothing wrong with my thinking process,” she said, sitting on the sofa of a woman she met the night before who offered her a place to stay. “I’m OK, but things are happening that make me seem incompetent ... Right now I’m just in bad shape.”
She admits she forgets things, and it’s making life harder. She thinks she left her medication at a house where she stayed for a few nights and can’t get back in to get it. She doesn’t want to tell her doctor the pills are gone, so she’s been going without for almost a week.
She also isn’t always sure about the timeline of the past few years.
She knows the events that left her without a home, but maybe not the order in which they occurred. She was renting a room in a three-bedroom house in Meadowview using a government-subsidized housing voucher when she said she made some bad decisions.
She let a male friend she called “King Kong” move in when he needed a place. It didn’t turn out well and that combined with roommate problems caused her to move out and go to a niece’s home in San Pablo.
She filled out paperwork to transfer her housing voucher to the Bay Area city, but failed to find an apartment that would accept it in the required 30 days. She received a “final notice” and thought she had lost the voucher for good, but wasn’t certain.
After police raided her niece’s home looking for a burglary suspect, she decided to return to another niece’s home in Elk Grove.
“Having those police come to the door like that, that gave me the blues,” she said. “I should have stayed in Sacramento.”
She’s been trying to work with the county of Sacramento to get another housing voucher now that she is back in town, but the process has been vexatious and filled with delays.
“I didn’t understand it when he explained it to me,” she said of talking to a county case worker.
Still, she isn’t blaming anybody. “It’s my fault because some things I allowed to happen,” she said. “Me and my crazy self.”
Brown, who has two ex-husbands but no children of her own, said things didn’t work out in Elk Grove either. That niece wanted her to babysit neighboring kids and give her the money, she said.
She felt exploited, so she left.
Brown said when she was younger, she pursued a Bachelor of Science from New York University and worked as a computer operator at Chevron in the Bay Area in the ’80s despite never completing the degree, and later worked as a customer service representative for a telecommunications company in Sacramento. She said she also served in the National Guard, and just a few years ago worked for a few months harvesting salmon eggs in fisheries in Alaska – a state she lived in when she was a tween.
Photos on her Facebook page from as recently as 2016 show her smiling, with her short hair dyed blond, a healthy weight compared to her now-thin frame. Her online profile details the robust life of a woman who attended parties, liked to fish and enjoyed the occasional glass of red wine.
She said she is fiercely independent, but along with pounds, homelessness has meant a loss of dignity and privacy.
“I feel violated in so many ways,” she said.
After bouncing through a few more bad situations, she ended up in the truck, parking by the river or in a Home Depot lot.
Recently, she spoke to her county case worker and he asked for a letter from her doctor documenting memory problems, though she was unclear why he wanted it. On Thursday, she said she’d confirmed the case worker had received it, but she was aggravated to learn it had been passed to a supervisor and she would have to wait for that review.
“The fact of the matter is that every day that goes by, it makes it worse and harder for me,” she said.
But on Friday, good news came. Sacramento city homeless coordinator Emily Halcon stepped in and pulled together a team of social services and medical outreach workers to help Brown.
By midmorning, she had a new housing voucher, with 127 days to find an apartment. With Sacramento experiencing one of the tightest rental markets in recent history, that will still be a difficult task, so Halcon is seeing if there are any social service workers who can help her search.
Brown was in her chiropractor’s office when she got the call.
“I’m laying on the table. I said, look, I haven’t answered my phone today so please don’t be mad,” she said. “That was lovely. I wasn’t anticipating that.”
But Brown had another worry. Her Social Security money is gone for the month.
She is supposed to pick up the paperwork for the voucher on Monday, but her fuel tank is near empty, she said – the kind of $20 problem that regularly derails homeless people from getting help.
“I’m scared to move my car,” she said. “I’ve got no gas to get there.”
Despite all that, “I need to help myself,” Brown said.
She wanted to use the day to “start hunting” for an apartment, but she thinks she should conserve the gas she has. Besides, though she’s filled out applications in past weeks for subsidized housing and even got some callbacks, she lacks the $135 she needs for a deposit, she said.
Darrin Davis, the woman who offered Brown a place to stay after bumping into her by the river, said she could remain there a couple more days. Two years ago, Davis, 53, was homeless herself.
“When she said she was 70, my heart went out to her,” said Davis, who has brought homeless people home before. “You’ve got to love your neighbor better than yourself.”
Brown is grateful for the shelter but uncertain how long the hospitality will last. She wants this tumultuous period of her life to “just be over,” she said.
“I’m so tired,” she said, slumped on the battered black leather couch in this stranger’s home. “I just want to be someplace in my own place with my two dogs. I just want to be left alone.”