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Seeking shelter for the invisible homeless

By Marilyn GardnerStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / August 25, 1999


Ed Gibbons never expected to be homeless in his retirement years.

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But when he lost his job as a security guard at the age of 60, he could no longer pay his rent. For seven years he lived a rootless existence, spending days on the streets of Boston and nights at a shelter for veterans.

All that changed this year when Mr. Gibbons learned about a permanent residence for homeless older people, run by the Committee to End Elder Homelessness in Boston. Five months ago he moved into an efficiency apartment, finding welcome stability and security at last.

"It has everything you need," Gibbons says, a smile lighting up his lean face as he talks about the sparely furnished but cheerful room. "You can cook your own food and take a hot shower every day. And you've got your privacy."

Although older people like Gibbons account for only a small part of the homeless population - 10 or 15 percent by some estimates - their numbers are gradually rising. Soaring rents, gentrification, and a sharp decline in federally subsidized housing in the past 20 years have all taken a toll on affordable housing, especially for those on fixed incomes.

No national figures track the number of displaced older people. One 1997 survey counted 1,052 homeless older adults in Massachusetts. In Boston alone, their ranks increased by 26 percent in a single year. Among those between ages 50 and 61, the increase soared to 62 percent.

One factor keeping the numbers relatively low is the high mortality rate among the homeless. One study puts the average life expectancy of homeless persons at 51.

"That is shockingly young, but not surprising considering that the conditions of homelessness are unhealthy and often life-threatening," says Maria Foscarinis, director of the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty in Washington.

Housing specialists expect the problem to worsen as private landlords "opt out" of subsidy contracts in search of market-rate rents. During the next five years, contracts for a million units of federally subsidized Section 8 housing will expire. Nearly half are occupied by households headed by people 62 and over without children.

"There's a vast affordable housing need in America that we really must address," says Mary Ann Gleason, executive director of the National Coalition for the Homeless in Washington. "In the 1970s we were creating about 230,000 units a year. In the '80s, that went down to 126,000 that we would create for very poor people. We haven't created any new housing units or subsidies for four years except last year, when Congress allocated 50,000 new housing vouchers."

Yet elder homelessness remains a largely invisible problem. "A lot of older people stay hidden, either in inadequate housing or in hidden places," says Janice Gibeau, executive director of the Committee to End Elder Homelessness. Many fear shelters and refuse to use them.

Public misconceptions further marginalize the group. "Most people don't ever think of older people being homeless,"Dr. Gibeau says. "Because we're a country on Medicare, people have the image that everyone has a safety net." But Medicare covers only health care, not housing assistance.

Mental illness and substance abuse alsocontribute to elder homelessness. Gibeau calls alcoholism and aging "the elephant in the room - a large problem." Limited literacy and vocational skills also keep some older adults from becoming self-supporting.

Although there is no "typical" elderly homeless person, Jane Alexander, director of the Women's Lunch Place day shelter in Boston, notes that all share the challenge of finding shelter. "Shuffling from one place to another - finding a place to sleep, a place to eat, a place to shower, a place to sit - is hard for anybody, but it's just remarkably hard for older people."

Some of the women Ms. Alexander serves refuse to discuss money or housing. "They're very proud and don't want to apply for disability money," she says. "Others are of an age where they insist on wearing skirts. It's hard to walk around in rain and cold and snow, still dressing with the dignity they're used to, and not have a home."

One neatly dressed white-haired woman, Mickey, has been a fixture on the streets of Boston's Back Bay for more than 10 years. She says she "lost everything" when her 18-year marriage ended, adding, "I got the car."

After living in her car for six years in Connecticut, Mickey moved to Boston. For three months she lived in shelters, then fled because of "a lot of harassment of the elderly" and "people stealing, teasing, aggravating you." Now she sleeps on a bench. Wearing a neatly lettered cardboard sign ("I am homeless please help") on a string around her neck, Mickey asks for money part of the day, then heads for the harbor to watch boats.