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The Graying of America's Homeless: An Alarming Trend

Number of unhoused people 65 and older could triple by 2030​

a homeless person sleeping on the street
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Without a place to hang his hat, Jason Rozelle, 57, started sleeping in his Nissan Infiniti last summer. In the middle of upscale Olathe, Kansas, Rozelle was homeless.​

He parked overnight at a gas station, and during the day scanned job listings on his laptop at the library. He has applied for “at least 100” positions without luck. Using food stamps, Rozelle bought Walmart chicken sandwiches or heated ramen noodles in the gas station microwave. A church gave him $20 a pop for gas, and sometimes food.​

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Rozelle is a prime example of what experts warn is an alarming phenomenon: The number of older Americans without a permanent roof over their heads is growing.​

Elder homelessness “is increasing dramatically right now,” says Jeff Olivet, executive director of the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness. “Seniors over the age of 55 are likely the fastest-growing group of people experiencing homelessness … and for many of them, it is first-time homelessness.”​

homeless man holds a house made of brown cardboard
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Homelessness Among Older Adults

Find out more about the crisis of the unhoused and how to help: 

The reasons are complex. As the population ages, more people are at risk of poverty, more will survive the death of a partner and more will subsist on limited incomes while housing costs skyrocket in many communities. Pandemic housing protections and assistance have mostly expired. ​

In addition, many people with stagnant incomes are of retirement age or working part-time, hourly jobs or positions with little potential for raises, Olivet says.​

​The growing number of people without a place to live, across all ages, is so significant that on Dec. 19 President Biden released a federal strategic plan to reduce homelessness by 25 percent by 2025. The plan, created by the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness, will address a lack of affordable housing, help people in crisis and prevent people from losing their homes in the first place. And it pays particular attention to those who are most seriously affected — people of color, veterans, those who are disabled and older adults.

“There’s been a creeping trend over the last several years where we’re seeing many more older adults” who are homeless, says Richard Cho, senior adviser for housing and services at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). From 2009 to 2017, the number of homeless people ages 51 to 61 grew from 14 percent of the homeless population nationally to close to 18 percent, Cho says. The percentage of people 62 or older that are homeless nearly doubled. And a 2019 study by University of Pennsylvania researchers and others that analyzed the populations of shelters in New York City, Los Angeles and Boston predicted by 2030, the number of people 65 and older who are homeless will nearly triple compared with 2017. ​

The faces behind the trend lines include the chronically homeless from the younger half of the boomer generation, long the dominant group among unhoused adults. In 1990, on average they were 30 years old; today their average age is 62. Other faces belong to people tossed out of homes and apartments for the first time, says Alan Banks of Friendship Place, a homeless services provider in Washington. These people, he says, often experience a “total shattering of their life.” ​

No place to stay​

Economics, in part, explains what plunges people into dire straits.

Earlier this year rent and home prices skyrocketed and the country endured the highest inflation in 40 years. That’s on top of a longtime shortage of affordable housing in the U.S. — a crunch that has a disproportionately negative impact on older adults, says Rodney Harrell, vice president of family, home and community for AARP. “We just don’t have enough housing options, particularly for folks with lower incomes,” he says. ​

The pandemic has had an impact too: Most of the emergency eviction bans enacted to protect those who lost jobs as COVID-19 descended have ended or are timing out, says Cho at HUD. Meanwhile, he and others say the safety net for older Americans is fraying.​

For example, in Hartford, Connecticut, the pandemic prompted an influx of newcomers from New York and Boston, says Kara Capone, CEO of Hartford’s Community Housing Advocates. At the same time, corporations bought up older apartment buildings, converting them into luxury properties and replacing the city’s “mom-and-pop” landlords who charged reasonable rents. ​

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Against this backdrop, Community Housing Advocates’ soup kitchen has lately seen a spike in requests for meals and food, and most of those lining up are older people, Capone says. She calls the scenario a “canary-in-the-coal-mine” indicator because those who are food insecure are at risk of losing their home or apartment. The result, she says, is that she’s seen “dramatic increases in elderly homelessness.” ​

Graying of the homeless​

Nearly 1 in 5 people in the U.S. without a permanent place to live are 55 and older, HUD’s most recent data shows. In 2020, the number HUD counted as homeless nationally was 580,466, and 18 percent — roughly the population of Boulder, Colorado — were 55 and older. The spike in unhoused older folks has been called the graying of America’s homeless.​

Within HUD’s total, some people counted were in shelters; others were living on the streets. But critics say HUD’s estimates don’t capture the full scale of homelessness since some people aren’t tallied, like families doubling up on an emergency basis or people temporarily bunking with friends.​

Doreen Nelson in her apartment
Doreen Nelson contracted COVID-19 in a shelter.
Jared Soares

Doreen Nelson, 64, has done all of that since being evicted years ago in New Rochelle, New York. Nelson and her granddaughter, whom she has raised since birth, cycled in and out of shelters and stayed with relatives or friends. Last Christmas Nelson came down with COVID-19 in a shelter, which moved her and her granddaughter into a hotel to quarantine. That’s where Nelson’s granddaughter got COVID too.​

Nelson has experienced “meager years of homelessness and displacement,” she says. “You’re broken to a certain extent.”​

A devout Christian who binge-watches HGTV’s Property Brothers show, Nelson kept praying. In August she and her 11-year-old granddaughter moved into a two-bedroom apartment near Washington thanks to a $2,200-a-month federal Housing Choice voucher.​

Paying the landlord or the pharmacy​

Housing officials often note the many and various reasons older adults are without permanent housing. Consider San Francisco, the finance and tech hub where the average monthly rent for a one-bedroom apartment was $3,428, according to Rent.com. For years the city has wrestled with homelessness, which across the U.S. disproportionately hits people of color.​

Shireen McSpadden, executive director of San Francisco’s Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing, says that local officials are “seeing a rising number of people becoming homeless for the first time after the age of 50” and that adults age 60-plus are the “fastest-growing segment” among California’s homeless.​

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The problem is so significant that San Francisco is planning a shelter for older adults and people with disabilities. The facility won’t have bunk beds, which pose fall risks, and may feature roll-in showers for individuals in wheelchairs, she says.​

McSpadden, like other advocates, preaches prevention and says helping people pay for medications, for example, or bringing in Meals on Wheels can stave off homelessness for those who must decide whether to pay their landlord or their pharmacy.​

But the issue goes beyond the financial bottom line. Studies show that older unhoused people have problems performing daily activities and have greater difficulty with “walking, vision and hearing, and falls and frailty compared to the general population,” McSpadden says, adding that “they’re much more likely to suffer from cognitive impairments, compared to younger homeless adults.” ​

Woman’s Health Crisis Leads to Homelessness at 59

Homelessness pummels the body, says Margot Kushel, M.D., a professor at the University of California San Francisco who has led longitudinal studies on unhoused, older adults. Her catchphrase: “Fifty is the new 75” when it comes to people without a permanent place to reside. ​

Whether unhoused people bed down in an abandoned building or on a park bench or under a tent, they tend to be exposed to the elements, eat poorly, sleep fitfully, skip medications and shun doctors and dentists. Moreover, says Kushel, who also is director of UCSF’s Benioff Homelessness and Housing Initiative, their circumstances trigger anxiety and depression, leading some to self-medicate with alcohol or drugs.​

A ‘precarious’ job market​

Rozelle, in Kansas, says sleeping in the car has hurt his health. A diabetic with hypertension, Rozelle landed in the hospital for four days in August after his blood pressure shot up. 

Rozelle also acknowledges multiple setbacks before he took up residence in his Nissan. ​He got divorced, gave up his apartment because he couldn’t pay the rent and lost his job last spring.

The former human resources staffer had been cleaning school classrooms to make ends meet.​ People age 50-plus have had the toughest time reentering the job market after both the Great Recession and the onset of the pandemic, says University of Pennsylvania social policy professor Dennis P. Culhane, an expert on homelessness. “It’s a precarious age for the labor market,” he notes.​

Moreover, if a person loses a parent or spouse who was helping with housing costs, the death may send survivors packing, Culhane says.​

After Rozelle’s marriage collapsed, he slept in his car in his ex-wife’s driveway. Later he stayed with a brother in Missouri, and, until his money ran out, in budget hotels. He’s particularly unhappy about not having a place for his son to visit and be comfortable. ​

“It’s pretty sad,” he says, not having a “place to lay your head down.” ​

Affordable Housing in High Demand

​From coast to coast, experts are trying to address a stubborn problem: the lack of housing for low-income people or those on fixed incomes. There’s no one-size-fits-all solution to alleviating homelessness, says Rodney Harrell, AARP’s vice president of family, home and community. ​

​Certainly, more affordable housing units and additional housing vouchers are needed, he says. Waiting lists for subsidized housing can be long, and in some areas, landlords aren’t required to accept tenants with vouchers. ​

​Harrell endorses a multipronged approach to the problem, including shared housing (a homeowner takes in a tenant), cohousing (such as a cluster of private homes with communal spaces or a building with separate bedrooms and shared kitchen and living rooms) and backyard accessory dwelling units. ​​

Known as ADUs or in-law suites, these small houses or apartments typically are built on the lot of a single-family residence. Harrell says ADUs are rising in popularity in areas with steep housing costs, though zoning laws and other barriers can preclude them. ​​

Worrisome to Jeff Olivet, who leads the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness, is when the public responds to homelessness with “anger” and “vitriol” rather than seeking “thoughtful, compassionate solutions.”​

​To be part of the solution, Olivet has four suggestions:​

1. Educate yourself on the realities of homelessness.​

2. Advocate at all levels of government for “adequate resources to address this problem.”​

3. Donate to effective, local organizations “doing good workaround solutions to homelessness.”​

4. Roll up your sleeves and volunteer for these groups.​​

Editor's note: This article was originally published on December 16, 2022. It has been updated to reflect new information.

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