Partners (Number 3, 2007)
Partners (Number 3, 2007)Addressing the Unique Needs of Homeless Seniors
Nationwide the number of homeless seniors seeking assistance from social agencies is increasing.
Yoball, as he likes to be called, is 59 years old and lives in a small, comfortable one-bedroom apartment in a building where he also works part-time. But for many years, Yoball was homeless; during the day he could be found in a downtown Atlanta park, juggling balls and entertaining passersby with his conversation.
Last year, Horace Sibley, chair of the Regional Commission on Homelessness, and Yolanda Castillo, executive director of Positive Outlook Foundation Inc., got to know Yoball and spent several months developing a trusting relationship with him. About seven months ago Yoball finally agreed to move off the street and into his own apartment.
"Now he is quite used to his apartment and is a different person—one that smiles more often, takes better care of himself, and is willing to tell people his story if that helps them change their lives," says Yolanda Castillo. In addition to his part-time employment Yoball is also assisting outreach workers by talking to other chronically homeless seniors on the street.
Seniors like Yoball now make up a growing segment of the homeless population. According to a 2007 point-in-time count conducted by the Metro Dallas Homeless Alliance, there were about 700 homeless persons (around 32 percent) over the age of 50 in Dallas, Tex. The study concludes that "there has been a significant increase in the 50-59 years of age category. The rise of homelessness in this age group is consistent with the overall aging of the baby boomers across our nation."
A 2003 Atlanta census indicated that about 9 percent of the homeless population was over 55 years of age. The figure increased to 11 percent in 2005, and the trend is expected to continue. Some experts believe that over 15 percent of the current homeless population is over 55, and the numbers keep increasing.
Homeless seniors represent a significant proportion of the chronically homeless—those who have been homeless for a long period of time and have disabilities such as mental illness, chronic substance abuse or physical disabilities. Chronically homeless individuals are the focus of a concerted effort in the Atlanta community to find ways to end this plight.
Housing the chronically homeless is cost-effective
In 2002, the Regional Commission on Homelessness was formed in Atlanta to create a plan to counter homelessness in the area. Under the leadership of Horace Sibley, a retired partner of King and Spalding LLP, community leaders from corporate, nonprofit and faith-based organizations worked together to develop the Blueprint to End Homelessness. This plan, which outlines 29 recommendations to address the issue, has been implemented over the past four years with leadership from the United Way of Metropolitan Atlanta. Provision of housing, support services and employment for chronically homeless persons has been central to the plan's strategy.
Across the nation, more than 48 states and 200 cities have adopted 10-year plans to end chronic homelessness. This approach is being supported by agencies in the field, businesses and faith-based groups. One reason is that it makes economic sense to address this issue.
Chronically homeless persons cost millions of dollars in supportive services, emergency medical healthcare and use of jail facilities. The cost of all these services to any community is many times what it takes to provide housing and support to a chronically homeless person. Studies indicate that a major decrease in the use of public services occurs once a homeless person moves to their own housing as opposed to living in shelters and on the street.
A 2002 report in Housing Policy Debate showed that the 4,679 homeless mentally ill persons in New York each cost an average of $40,449 of publicly funded services the year prior to moving into housing. The cost dropped to $12,145 per year after they were in housing. Another study by Boston Health Care for the Homeless Program, reported in the Boston Globe, indicates that healthcare costs for 119 homeless persons dropped from $28,436 annually to $6,065 after they moved into housing.
In an article in the New Yorker magazine Malcolm Gladwell, author of The Tipping Point, highlights the case of Murray Barr, a homeless man in Denver whose frequent encounters with law enforcement and hospitalization cost the community a million dollars over Murray's lifetime. Murray died homeless.
Gladwell's article points out that it costs about $15,000 to house a homeless person in their own apartment for a year in Denver, Colo. This figure actually represents a cost savings for the community when one considers that the chronically homeless segment of the population is the most frequent user of emergency rooms and jails. Figures released by the Interagency Council on Homelessness show that although the chronically homeless account for only about 10 to 15 percent of the homeless population, they consume half the resources spent on homelessness.
In Atlanta, the Regional Commission on Homelessness strongly advocates affordable housing with support services as an approach to ending homelessness. Support services can assist formerly homeless persons in finding employment once they are stabilized, if they are able to work. The Regional Commission believes this approach is a cost-effective way to end homelessness for the part of the population that is most difficult to serve.
|Formerly homeless people who can work need employment opportunities.|
Atlanta agencies take action
As a result of this strategic effort, over 900 new units of supportive housing have been created in the Atlanta region over the last four years, and another 500 are expected to be ready in the coming year.
Agencies such as Cobb Community Services Board, Travelers Aid, Mary Hall Freedom House and Georgia Rehabilitation Outreach are providing the housing and case management necessary to help with the transition to housing. A majority of these projects are open to accepting elderly homeless people, but only a few of them are dedicated to this population. One project for seniors is expected to be ready later this year (see sidebar).
The Regional Commission on Homelessness tracks over 700 persons in supportive housing in Atlanta, and its data show that 92 percent of those who have moved into housing have stayed there, even after a year. Figures from the most recent quarter indicate that about 7 percent of this population is over 55, and in some programs an additional 10 percent are over 50.
In order to move towards independence and stability, formerly homeless people who can work need employment opportunities. Barriers to employment facing the homeless population are numerous, including criminal records and poor skills. Addressing these hurdles may require job training, one-on-one counseling and post-placement counseling to ensure that a homeless person can not only find a job but keep it.
In Atlanta, innovative employment programs targeted to the long-term homeless are being created by Atlanta Workforce Development Agency, Goodwill, Samaritan House, Atlanta Enterprise Center and First Step Staffing. The training and job opportunities are in areas such as culinary skills, construction, custodial work and hospitality. Case managers work to find industries that will be able to place a formerly homeless person despite their limitations.
Homeless seniors grapple with tough challenges
Homeless seniors face additional obstacles to employment including health issues that prevent some from performing jobs that require physical stamina. Other seniors may have trouble learning new skills due to lack of education or a state of chronic unemployment. "Yet, when these barriers are overcome by programs designed to address these issues, seniors are found to be very successful employees," says Jennifer Moore, program manager of the Atlanta Workforce Development Agency (AWDA).
In the last six months, AWDA has found employment for over 25 long-term homeless persons. Five of these are seniors employed in construction and office work who are reported to be performing well in their current jobs.
One success story of this group is 54-year-old Demetrius B., who was homeless for years before finally getting help at the Gateway 24/7 Homeless Services Center, a keystone project of the Regional Commission on Homelessness. While staying at the Gateway he was connected with AWDA. The organization assisted him with skills training and other counseling services. After graduating from the program, he was placed in a job as a sheet metal mechanic which earns $18 per hour and makes it possible for him to afford his own apartment.
Health needs escalate for aging homeless
In addition to the barriers faced by all homeless persons, seniors are confronted by a growing need for health care services. A study from the National Health Care for the Homeless Council (NHCHC) states that the elderly who are homeless and lack social supports are especially prone to depression, dementia and other mental health problems. They may also have compromised immune systems related to aging, poor nutrition and chronic medical illness.
The study points out that because of the harsh environments they have been subjected to and physical ailments worsened by poor nutrition and poor living, the elderly homeless adult is likely to have considerably more medical problems and appear older than those of the same age who have housing.
Studies have shown that the lack of decent housing takes a toll on health for seniors. These studies concur with others that a homeless person is usually a higher user of emergency services and more likely to wind up in jails than those in the general population. A cost-benefit study done by Georgia Rehabilitation Outreach Inc. tracked the savings in hospitals and jails for 60 severely mentally ill, homeless persons. They found that providing supportive housing would generate a savings of over $1,000,000 for these 60 persons, even when the cost of housing and case management from an assertive community treatment team was tallied.
Building trust is key for service providers
It is difficult to convince a homeless person who has been on the streets for a long time to move into housing. At times addiction and mental illness make it still more difficult to engage and stabilize a person. Seniors, who are at greater risk of victimization, are even more untrusting of the system, and caseworkers must build trust in order to offer them housing.
In recent months, outreach workers in Atlanta have been working alongside agencies like Positive Outlook Foundation and Recovery Consultants to build relations with homeless persons (including seniors) one by one in order to offer them safe and secure housing. This approach is time-consuming but the efforts are worth it. Agencies are using peers like Yoball to persuade others to move to housing. Yoball's juggling keeps his peers entertained while he convinces them to give up the street and its barriers for supportive housing.
In the coming years, the needs of the aging of homeless populations will become more and more apparent to agencies working in this field. Moving homeless seniors into affordable housing and offering them supportive services is a promising strategy that should be considered seriously by every community across the nation.
This article was written by Protip Biswas, executive director of the Regional Commission on Homelessness in Atlanta.