Seeking shelter for the invisible homeless

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

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.

"I used to own my own boat," she says. "I just love the water."

She attends free lectures and movies at the Boston Public Library.She also systematically saves money - to get her teeth cleaned, to go the flower show, to attend a Red Sox game. "That's what I do for a pastime, to make life pleasanter," she says.

But nothing can substitute for a permanent roof. As one solution, advocates for the elderly are urging Congress to increase the supply of federally subsidized housing. The US Department of Housing and Urban Development estimates that 1.5 million older people face worst-case housing needs, putting them at great risk of homelessness. That includes those who live in severely substandard housing or pay more than 50 percent of their income for rent, or both.

"We need to find a comprehensive way of looking at the special housing needs older persons have," says Larry McNickle, director of housing policy at the American Association of Homes and Services for the Aging in Washington. Developers, he adds, must consider not only affordability but "the suitability of housing to accommodate supportive services as people age."

At the local level, Ms. Foscarinis advocates policies that encourage private developers to build more affordable housing. This includes requiring a percentage of new developments to be set aside for low-income residents.

In another approach, the National Coalition for the Homeless has launched an initiative to create a million units of housing over five to seven years for those whose incomes are the minimum wage - $10,700 - or less. Called the Community Housing Investment Trust, the effort would be half federally funded, half private.

"Some communities would use this to build units, and others to subsidize units, " says Ms. Gleason.

Permanent housing developed by the Committee to End Elder Homelessness offers another model. The group began eight years ago by renovating a Victorian house in Boston's Jamaica Plain neighborhood. It provides congregate living for nine formerly homeless women. Each has her own room, and they share a kitchen.

In Boston's South End, the committee turned an old bread factory into 41 apartments for homeless men and women. Residents range from their late 50s to late 80s, with most, like Gibbons, in their mid to late 60s. Two-thirds are men. They pay one-third of their income - typically Social Security disability income - for rent. Foundations, corporations, and private donors support the project.

After seven years of living by shelter rules, Gibbons relishes his independence. "You can get up when you want and go to bed when you want," he says. "Right outside my door, there's a huge TV with cable." One afternoon, several men watched television in a lounge, while five women played bingo in a common room.

Some efforts to create affordable housing get thwarted by nimbyism, the not-in-my-backyard syndrome. Even if funds are available, Foscarinis notes, "community groups trying to create housing may face local opposition from business groups, neighborhood groups, and residents who fear, based on stereotypical prejudices, that allowing such housing will be detrimental."

Alexander advocates "supportive" elderly housing that offers "compassionate understanding" for problems such as mental illness or alcoholism. "They have many things they're dealing with in their lives, and they're not all going to go away just because housing is offered," she says.

She also emphasizes the need for housing that provides community while preserving independence. And an intergenerational approach gives people "a sense of belonging to a real segment of life rather than an elderly center that feels demeaning."

Gibeau is working on a longitudinal study of elder homelessness with gerontologists in England and Australia. She is also seeking funding to film a documentary, telling "the real story of elder homelessness, not some Hollywood version."

She adds, "You don't get to be old by being a wimp. Old people who are working their way out of homelessness are very creative." Referring to the residence where Gibbons lives, she adds, "Funny things happen every day, as well as poignant things, silly things, very serious things. It's a happy place."

Gibbons agrees. On a summer afternoon, with sunlight streaming on his yellow wing chair and his purple-and-green bedspread, he takes a long view, saying, "I'd love to die here. Very loving, caring people run this place. There's nothing they wouldn't do for you. They've thought of everything."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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