Photo: St. Mary’s staff member Alita Manuel and volunteer Guitar Whitfield prepare healthy lunches for seniors. (Photo by Laura McCamy)
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OAKLAND, Calif.–Guitar Whitfield, 70, spent much of his life at sea as a merchant marine and a musician on the side. When he returned to Oakland to visit family for the holidays a couple of years ago, he found himself homeless. His brother Bennie brought him to St. Mary’s Center, a nonprofit
Elders’ Health Challenges
Multiply Without Shelter
Margot Kushel, MD, has observed a disturbing trend among the younger homeless seniors (ages 50 to 55) she treats. “We see incredibly high rates of age-associated conditions that we worry about in older people.”
“The folks who’ve been homeless their whole lives are also suffering horribly, and they need lots of help,” said Kushel said, a professor of medicine at the University of California, San Francisco. Her program for 350 home-destabilized seniors, is based at San Francisco General Hospital.
“One of the other things we found that was maybe surprising or encouraging: Our participants for the most part have family in the Bay Area,” said Kushel. Almost two-thirds of the cohort was raised in the Bay Area, and 98 percent were born in the United States.
When asked for someone who would know where they were, 81 percent were able to provide contact information. “A huge percentage of people had places that they attended regularly,” she said. “There are a lot of people who care about them. These are not people who were disconnected from the community.”
Time on the streets can lead to isolation, however. “Those connections erode when people are homeless,” said Kushel.
So far, Kushel’s research has found that one barrier to becoming rehoused is that a quarter-to-a-third of homeless seniors have significant cognitive impairment. This makes it difficult to complete complex tasks with multiple steps, such as showing up at the right time to get a shelter bed or finishing all the steps to apply for permanent housing.
When people don’t show up for self-help, it doesn’t mean that they don’t want services, she said, but they may be impaired enough that they aren’t able to follow through on instructions.
Kushel stressed, “African Americans are really disproportionately affected by homelessness.” Almost 80 percent of the participants in Kushel’s study are black: “That’s the other really damning statistic.”
that provides a range of services, such as case management and winter shelter for homeless seniors.
Whitfield is a tall, lean black man with an easy smile and a friendly greeting for the seniors and staff who pass by in the courtyard of St. Mary’s, which, he recalled, “took me in, took care of my transportation, showed me how to save money.”
The nonprofit was able to connect Whitfield with a spot in a brand new affordable housing building, Merritt Crossing, and he spent only four months homeless. Now, he comes back to help plate the hot lunch the center serves six days a week (at the cost of $1) or helping out wherever he is needed.
“I advocate, I work in the kitchen and I play music,” he says. “I come here to the center five days a week.”
Disinvestment in Affordable Housing
“Since the mid-1980s, the investment in affordable housing has gone down,” said Carol Johnson, executive director of St. Mary’s Center. “There’s a really dramatic shift.”
The defunding of affordable housing [http://bit.ly/10rJwWi] has become even more dramatic in recent years. “The primary source of financing for affordable senior housing has been cut back almost every year, to a point where very few get built every year,” said Joshua Simon, executive director of the nonprofit East Bay Asian Local Development Corporation [http://www.ebaldc.org/] (EBALDC).
“The irony is that, at the time when it was most affordable to build affordable housing, when land and construction costs were at all-time lows, that’s when redevelopment was ended by the state,” he added.
The City of Oakland received an average of $27 million in set-aside redevelopment funds for the construction and rehabilitation of affordable housing, according to Oakland Housing Development Manager Norma Thompson.
In the two years since redevelopment ended, the city has only been able to find $7 million in annual funding for those projects.
Working Poor Seniors End Up Homeless
Without access to affordable housing, low-income seniors are particularly vulnerable to homelessness. Johnson reports that upward of 40 percent of the population in Oakland’s year-round shelters are seniors.
Margot Kushel, MD, a professor of medicine at the University of California, San Francisco, who is based out of San Francisco General Hospital, noted that in the 1990s slightly more than 10 percent of the homeless population was over 50 (the cutoff that many researchers use to define seniors). By 2003, that number had risen to one in three. “What is true now is about half the homeless population is 50 and older,” she said.
“Several things are happening. One is that the cost of housing has skyrocketed and the wages haven’t kept up,” Kushel said. “I think it’s important that people understand these changes have a big impact on people’s lives.”
Kushel leads a team conducting a study of 350 homeless seniors, aged 50 and older. She said preliminary results show that among the study’s sample group, 43 percent had been housed until recently.
“Something happened to them late in life,” she said. “It’s never one thing. It’s often complicated. Someone loses a job. A spouse dies. They lose the family home after a parent dies.”
Kushel added, “It’s easy to be a doctor or a lawyer or a journalist in your 50s or 60s or 70s; it’s a lot harder to be an unskilled laborer.” She noted that a bad back or an injury could end the career of a low-wage worker early, with devastating consequences. “Many of these are the people who have been the janitors, who have been stocking the shelves.”
Remembering one man who lost his job after working his whole life, Kushel said he had never been homeless before. As he scrambled to find work, he refused to stay at St. Mary’s shelter because he wanted to be available to work a night job. The streets took their toll and he ended up in the hospital before he was finally persuaded to stay in the shelter.
Lack of Political Will
Kushel asked, “Are we missing opportunities to intervene? Is it getting too hard to intervene because housing is so expensive?”
She went on, “Our folks can’t even find shelter beds, forget about a place to live. You can’t even get on a wait list.” Since Kushel’s team started recruiting homeless seniors for the study in July of 2013, about 15 percent have become rehoused. “We’ll follow them over time to see if it stuck or not,” she said.
When someone from the study finds housing, Kushel said they are “unrecognizable.” She explained, “They look so different and so much better. All their health measures get so much better when they are housed.”
“We need to also think about the strengths [of homeless seniors] and what they can do as opposed to always focusing on their challenges,” she said.
Guitar Whitfield noted, “When I came here, I had to humble myself. I explained to [the counselors at St. Mary’s] that my homelessness was an opportunity to come out of my lush life,” including late night gigs and drinking too much.
Johnson wants more seniors to have the same opportunity as Whitfield. She believes that the shortage of affordable housing is not insoluble, but it is intractable. “It’s not going to go away until there’s a major federal policy shift,” she said. “We have to be determined to house people and, at this point, it seems like we don’t care.”
“We are letting older people live on the streets,” Kushel said. “We have changed our policies. That’s the reality of what we are doing.”
Laura McCamy wrote this article for Oakalnd Local with support from the Journalists in Aging Fellows Program of the Gerontological Society of America and New America Media, sponsored by AARP. This story is part of a series on the effect of gentrification on seniors.