High rent, health costs leaving many elderly hungry

The homeless are not the only Americans easing their hunger pangs at soup kitchens. Senior citizens with no money left to pay for food after covering rent and medical bills are joining them. ``More and more senior citizens are showing up in soup kitchen lines,'' says Sandra Nathan, a policy analyst for the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP).

There were 3.5 million Americans aged 65 and older living in poverty in 1986, according to the AARP, an increase of 21,000 since 1985.

Many older Americans rely on a fixed income to pay for rent, food, and medical care. Social Security checks are the sole source of income for 14 percent of the elderly, according to figures compiled for the Select Committee on Aging of the US House of Representatives. An additional 24 percent of the elderly rely on Social Security to provide 90 percent or more of their income.

Grace Chung, a 58-year-old Boston woman, began eating lunch and dinner at the Salvation Army Harbor Light Center when she could no longer afford to shop for groceries. She was paying $380 a month for a less-than-satisfactory room and covering medical bills on a $499 monthly Supplemental Security Income check.

Maj. Charles Williams, executive director of the center, discovered during a mealtime conversation that Mrs. Chung was turned down for subsidized housing. He decided that she needed someone to fight for her rights. ``Unless they [the elderly poor] have family members to advocate for them, they just give up,'' he says. Williams appealed the rejection of Chung's application for low-income housing, and she now pays $90 a month for a nicer apartment and can cover her food costs.

The Harbor Light Center began a dinner program for seniors early in 1987. A local hospital first recognized the need for such a program, says Williams: ``They felt that there were seniors having to make critical life-or-death decisions about spending money on food,'' says Williams.

Elderly people living on the West Coast are also turning to soup kitchens for their meals. ``We were alerted last year that seniors were showing up in soup kitchens, especially those who are frail. They were released too early from hospitals,'' says Laurie True, a spokesperson for the California Rural Legal Assistance Foundation.

A change in the medicare system means that hospitals are paid a set amount of money for a specific diagnosis, no matter how long it takes for the patient to get well. So, patients are released early to cut back on the hospital's care costs, says Ms. True, though many are not yet able to care for themselves.

Martin Bander, director of news and public affairs at Massachusetts General Hospital, says: ``There is a perception nationally that, since the advent of DRGs [diagnostic related groups], hospitals around the country have tended to discharge patients earlier than would have been the case before the coming of the DRG program.

``There is no direct evidence that I am aware of to sustain this,'' says Mr. Bander. ``However, the length of stay in acute care institutions has, to the best of my knowledge, fallen since DRGs went into effect.''

California has 9,221 seniors on a waiting list for home delivery of meals. Many turn for help to soup kitchens, says True. San Francisco's St. Anthony Dining Room serves about 2,000 meals a day to anyone who walks in off the street. By the end of each month about 300 to 400 senior citizens are eating there daily, says Seamus Kilty, the dining room's executive director.

``Those who aren't able to come in under rent control end up paying $400 for an SRO [single room occupancy in a residential hotel]. They can't cook in a hotel room, so they have to eat out and end up using all of their money by the end of the month,'' Mr. Kilty says.

People of widely varying ages and living situations wait for dinner in a basement room of the Church of St. John the Evangelist in Boston. There are young men who reside on the Boston Common and old women living in residential hotels.

A 68-year old man named Walter is there early, sitting at a table with easy access to the serving area. Walter, who receives $270 a month in Social Security, is a regular at the soup kitchen and often meets friends there. But St. John's is more than just a place to socialize for Walter. He needs the food he gets there to survive. ``It's hard to get by with the landlord always raising the rent,'' he says.

Conversion of apartments into condominiums is forcing more of Boston's elderly to eat in soup kitchens, says Maureen Whiting, director of Neighborhood Action Inc., which sponsors the St. John's dinner.

Some elderly feel that standing in a soup line is more discreet than going through the process of getting assistance, says Ms. Nathan of the AARP. ``These are individuals who have come up through the Depression,'' she says. ``They realize that there is public assistance available but don't want to take advantage because they feel they wouldn't qualify or they aren't aware of the program's availability.''

Only 50 percent of the elderly eligible for food stamps use them, according to the AARP.

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