THE BLOG
05/05/2016 02:00 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

For Homeless Seniors, the Writing is on the Wall

2016-05-05-1462471184-2756114-senior.jpgReports show a drastic need to build additional affordable housing for seniors. A study recently indicated that there are 10 seniors on average on housing waiting lists throughout the country for every single unit of affordable housing.

What happens to the other 9 becomes even more of an issue as the number of seniors experiencing homelessness grows year to year.

In fact, the number of people over 65 experiencing homelessness is projected to more than double by 2050, from 44,000 in 2010 to almost 93,000 in 2050.

In addition to this, data shows that 45% of seniors over 65 are economically vulnerable. This means that the proportion of their income going to basic necessities is simply too high. Housing and health care costs alone are putting them at financial risk.

This is especially problematic when you consider that housing costs are trending up. Medical care adds a troublesome variable to this equation because it is impossible to know exactly how much a senior will need to spend on medicines and medical services in the span of a year.

The number of rent-burdened households including seniors is also high. A report from Justice In Aging puts this number at 8.7 million or 38% of all such households, while 21% or 4.8 million of these households are actually severely burdened and at even greater risk.

Trends show that these households often lost a substantial part of their assets during the Great Recession when real estate and stock values plummeted in many parts of the country.

The problem is compounded by the fact that in the 50-64 cohort, people tend to lack sufficient retirement savings to sustain living expenses without wages. The same report also points to the fact that in this age group, 28% of Americans actually have no retirement savings at all, while the overall amount of savings for those who have money put away is, again, too low for long-term sustainability.

As our population ages in the aftermath of the Great Recession, we are seeing more of a need to intervene in this area than we have perhaps in decades.

We are also seeing a disturbing trend to move seniors to nursing homes because Medicaid pays for their care in these facilities. Nursing home placements are becoming an alternative to affordable housing. Some seniors are ending up in nursing homes when they could have managed in their own apartments if funding for housing was available. We are actually institutionalizing these older Americans simply because housing dollars are too limited.

Where Medicaid cannot pay for housing, it can pay for supportive services. Jurisdictions around the US are looking at ways to increase Medicaid's support or already drawing these funds to support their homeless services networks. This is a good idea but these jurisdictions need to be mindful of the fact that service models should be developed on the ground and watch for the possible impact of restrictions and cumbersome rules that might come with Medicaid funding.

Individual health cost projections also need to factor in the impact of co-pays on people living on fixed income both in terms of prescriptions and medical care.

The writing is on the wall. If we do not act now, the number of seniors becoming homeless will simply keep rising.

Pundits are recommending a reform of public benefits like Supplemental Security Income (SSI) and Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) that will flex eligibility requirements, therefore allowing a greater number of seniors to enroll. The place to start might be to increase the amount of assets a senior can hold and still benefit from these programs. At this point, the threshold is so high that many people simply cannot enroll because of property or financial assets they hold.

The mindset needs to shift toward keeping people in place who may not appear to be extremely poor but are likely to be destabilized while living at a just slightly higher level than utter poverty. In other words, we need to prevent these seniors from hitting rock bottom.

The monthly benefit amounts need to increase. The programs were designed years ago and no longer shelter seniors and persons with disabilities from poverty. For instance, the maximum monthly SSI amount is $733, making it very challenging for recipients to secure housing and meet their other expenses.

There is also a need to help seniors access and maintain these benefits. More supportive services programs need to be funded to that effect. At this stage, the SOAR Program has no dedicated source of funding, for instance, leaving local jurisdictions to dip into their own already strapped budgets to fund these services or to find other ways to fund them. This is causing this potentially valuable service to be limited or nonexistent at the local level.

Preventative approaches like theses have proven to save the overall system a lot of money by keeping people away from high-cost emergency services and avoiding more costly rehousing services.

In addition to this, privately funded legal services like AARP's Alternatives to Landlord Tenant Court Project are helping seniors navigate the maze of complicated legal procedures involving evictions or excessive rental increases. Their attorneys mediate on behalf of the seniors with a goal to help them age in place. This is a best practice that should be funded more regularly in cities and counties around the country.

Reports are also recommending that we take a close look at our affordable housing stock. Many units need rehabilitation to make them more livable and more accessible. They need to be retrofitted to meet the needs of the people who are meant to occupy them.

We also need to build new units since we have fallen way behind in relation to the current level of need.

Now is the time for us to be more intentional about the way we respond to senior homelessness and to create service and housing options that meet the unique needs of this population lest we save the problem for the next generation to solve.