The Old and Infirm Are Treated Shamefully

by | Oct 9, 2018 | Uncategorized

This photo shows an intermediate stage in the creation of one of the figures in The Home Coming. The fictitious Ms. Anateen Tyson represents women, people of color, and the elderly, but her symbolism does not stop there because, as we have learned, she also endures health problems.

A couple of years ago there was a rabidly publicized mess in New York City. The New York Post, which writer John Del Signore calls “America’s foulest tabloid,” devoted its cover to a homeless woman who had been shepherding her caravan of shopping carts around the city for years. Mayor de Blasio directed sanitation workers and the police to roll her up, and amid plenty of additional publicity, they did so. Her belongings were reduced to a single bag, and the authorities discarded the rest of her possessions.

A friend of House the Homeless wrote,

My experiences in senior low-income housing have been so horrific as to leave me actually contemplating storing my things and sleeping at a shelter. I have never felt less safe in all of my life and to my amazement I fear the women here every bit as much as the men. My apartment itself is a delight, but what lies outside my front door is the stuff of nightmares… The reason for my fear is 100% based on the high ratio of mentally ill inmates… I mean tenants!

How bad must senior housing conditions be, to inspire someone to contemplate giving up an apartment for space in a shelter? And the final sentence is chilling. The building is mostly tenanted by people who are just barely holding on, and who display enough bizarre and dangerous behavior to terrify a woman who merely suffers from multiple physical problems.

And where are the damaged senior citizens who can’t even keep it together sufficiently to manage living in such a building? A lot of them are on the streets, because there is no place else for them to be.

Older people become homeless in many ways. Job loss, divorce, death of spouse. A reverse mortgage didn’t work out, or some other unwise financial decision went bad. There is a foreclosure. Medical bills lead to bankruptcy. Greedy or desperate relatives drain their resources. Trying to do something they used to be able to do leads to disabling injury. The rent goes up and there is nowhere affordable to live.

When anyone transitions from housed to homeless, a phenomenon called “age acceleration” kicks in. Living on the streets has a prematurely aging effect, which exacerbates whatever age-related problems a person already has.

To take one obvious and widespread example, no patient’s arthritis has ever improved from spending the day on a bus bench in freezing weather. There are shelters where people in their 70s, 80s and 90s sleep on mattresses on floors. It’s pretty hard for some of them to get up and down, and even harder if they are one notch less fortunate, and sleep outside on cardboard.

Among Americans age 65 and older, in 2016 more than 7 million had incomes below the poverty line, based on the Supplemental Poverty Measure. That metric is different from what the government uses, and results in a number that exceeds the official count by 2.6 million. Alana Semuels says,

While poverty fell among people 18 and under and people 18 to 64 between 2015 and 2016, it rose to 14.5 percent for people over 65. In America in 2016, nearly half of all single homeless adults were aged 50 and older, compared to 11 percent in 1990.

Run that by us again? In the most recent year for which statistics have been compiled, nearly half of all single homeless adults were aged 50 and older. The housed people who confidently advise, “They should just get a job” are oblivious to the fact that few jobs are available for people over 50 who do not possess the means to keep themselves and their clothes clean, or even get a good night’s sleep. Meanwhile, thousands upon thousands of senior citizens are scraping by, wondering where the next dollar will come from, teetering on the very edge of a chasm, praying they will not be pitched down into homelessness.

For The Atlantic, Semuels chronicled the misfortunes of a 76-year-old Californian, Roberta Gordon, who received $915 per month from Social Security and SSI (insufficient to pay her $1,040 monthly rent). A roommate who shared the costs had recently died, so Ms. Gordon was taking on credit card debt and eating from a local church’s food pantry.

However much a person made during their working years, they are said to need 70% of their pre-retirement income to live “comfortably,” and being as how Social Security usually only supplies 40%, they’d better have something else going for them. Semuels writes that women…

[…] typically receive lower benefits than men do. In 2014, older women received on average $4,500 less annually in Social Security benefits than men did. They received lower wages when they worked, which leads to smaller monthly checks from Social Security. They also are more likely to take time off from work to care for children or aging parents, which translates to less time contributing to Social Security and thus lower monthly benefit amounts.


In Riverside County, CA, Rose Mayes, executive director of the Fair Housing Council, told the press that her organization is seeing more homeless seniors than ever before. Some places are more seriously affected than others. In the state of Massachusetts as a whole, 16% of the people are over 65, but in Cape Cod, it’s more like 30%, and a great many individuals in that demographic are in danger of losing their homes.

Journalist Cynthia McCormick spoke with Elizabeth Albert, the county’s executive director of human services, who was greatly alarmed by the annual “point-in-time” count and told the reporter,

Forty-two percent of the unsheltered — meaning people living in emergency shelters, transitional housing, on the street and in cars — were between the ages of 50 and 64, and 5 percent were over the age of 65.

In nearby Fall River, shelter coordinator Karen Ready described conditions at St. Joseph’s House, where elderly individuals may be dealing with issues of balance, weakness, incontinence, hearing loss, deteriorating vision, and dementia.

From the left coast, Gale Holland told readers that among people experiencing homelessness in Los Angeles, the 62+ age group grew by 22% since the last count, and now encompasses almost 5,000 senior Americans. She adds a reminder that shelters are not equipped, or adequately staffed, for the needs of frail elderly people.

Furthermore, “emergency housing is focused on families going through a rough patch, who can recover financially and move on.” In other words, resources are invested in those who have a future.


Source: “NY Post Wins Decisive Victory Against Elderly Homeless Woman,”, 03/10/16
Source: “How Many Seniors Are Living in Poverty?,”, 03/02/18
Source: “This Is What Life Without Retirement Savings Looks Like,”, 02/22/18
Source: “Aging Homeless Population Poses New Challenges for Shelters,”, 22/27/17
Source: “22% surge in number of older homeless people catches L.A. officials off guard,”, 07/19/18
Image by House the Homeless