In my home city one can’t help but notice the increasing number of homeless encampments or simply the sleeping bags, tents, cardboard boxes beside the freeways or tucked into the shrubs near our bike paths or side streets. Daily a news article appears reporting about homeless policy. But, rarely, if ever, has the issue of being both older and homeless been considered. Once again our elders are invisible. This was aptly considered in two journal articles that were the topic of the most recent Round Table. Both articles conducted in-depth interviews of older adults who were homeless . Grenier had an overall approach while Petersen explored the becoming homeless for the first time as an elder. The circumstances of first time homelessness vs. chronic homelessness may require different kinds of services and interventions and certainly a different perspective and understanding of the individual. But stigma and shame come with either circumstance.
Being homeless and living on the streets means redefining our conception of old. Most of the respondents in the Grenier study were in their mid-50s and early 60s. The stress of homelessness and managing shelter life contribute to aging rapidly. Repeatedly the respondents spoke of extreme fatigue and feeling physically vulnerable in a shelter setting with younger residents. Many expressed the difficulties of keeping medical appointments and managing chronic health issues.
Senior centers are becoming the “go to place” to find services for older homeless individuals because the services in shelters are not well tailored to the aging population. But senior centers, too, are struggling with finding appropriate services and stable housing. Too, senior centers have the added challenge of helping other center members accept a group of people whose personal hygiene and appearance may be new and uncomfortable. I was enormously touched by one social worker who often uses the comment, “I wonder what it feels like not to have a home.”
Homelessness comes at a confluence of the economy, family disruption, chronic mental health issues, and perhaps substance abuse. With these many issues at the forefront of any one particular individual it may be difficult to find an appropriate housing setting. As with other issues in aging, (such as driving or managing one’s finances) finding an acceptable living situation is a balance of autonomy and self-determination vs. safety and self-neglect. Elders voice a preference for privacy, autonomy, flexibility and safety which may be at odds with one’s ability to live in congregate care which requires a certain amount of social and life skills. Those who find themselves homeless may have a history of family disruption and unstable relationships with family and friends and have not developed the necessary skills to live in a small community.
The issue of hope and resilience as depicted in the journal article didn’t ring true to many of us. As social workers we look to strengths, but as one person pointed out she had never heard anyone say they didn’t want housing, rather she heard desperation. Several of the interview respondents reflected that having lived on the streets they had gained lessons in resilience, strength and hope, and even wisdom. Older homeless individuals are no different than any other older adult who is trying to gain perspective to their long life journey. My sense is that when able to reflect, when not struggling just to simply maintain, the insight and wisdom of age may buffer adversity or anchor hope.
The Round Table Discussion Group meets monthly for an interdisciplinary conversation with experienced professionals in the field of aging. Each conversation uses one or two journal articles as reference points. The articles read for this discussion were:
Growing Old in Shelters and On the Street: Experience of Older Homeless People,” Amanda Grenier, Tamara Sussman, Rachel Barken, Valerie Bourgeois-Guerin& David Rothwell (2016) Journal of Gerontological Social Work, 59:458-477
Homeless for the First Time in Later Life: An Australian Study,” Maree Petersen & Cameron Parsell, Housing Studies 2015, Vol 30, No. 3, 368-391