THE BLOG
03/31/2016 01:21 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

New Ways to Solve Senior Homelessness

The number of seniors experiencing homelessness in the U.S. is growing.

In the last several years, trends show that the number of seniors living in extreme poverty - those earning less than $6,000 a year - is also growing significantly.

Some seniors age into the homeless cohort (50-65) when they turn 50, others become homeless after they retire, as they are simply priced out of the housing market at some point.

The latter experience leads to greater difficulties on the street because seniors who become homeless late in life are simply not used to the system and not as streetwise.

Seniors tend to have more health issues and do not respond as well to programming that is designed for the general population.

In overcrowded shelters, for instance, they are more vulnerable and are preyed upon more frequently. They also experience falls and injuries.

Cities and counties all over the country need to grapple with this issue.

Looking at the needs of specific populations within the larger homeless group has produced excellent results in the recent past. The new practices to serve veterans are a perfect example of what can be done to add quality and effectiveness to the service delivery.

In the matter of a few years, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs has made huge progress in the way it serves veterans experiencing homelessness or on the brink, with the help of community-based service providers.

The field is now focusing on youth. This welcomed development has already led to the creation of new, more youth-centered service options as alternatives to the traditional child protective system, which is very positive.

However, the need to develop adequate programming for seniors does not come up as much in conversations with advocates and services providers, although these folks are potentially at a greater risk than others during their period of homelessness.

We now know that our emergency response system is an important part of the homeless service delivery because it allows us to provide assistance to people immediately after they become homeless.

Enhancing our service delivery with specialized shelters for seniors would be a great place to start at the local level in our cities and counties. In these shelters, well-trained staff could welcome seniors and help them navigate the system so they can transition back into housing as quickly as possible.

Service-enriched programs like these will help us reach out to seniors in a more humane and effective way. The approach is also cost-effective since it will help diminish the seniors' reliance on expensive emergency services, like ambulance rides and emergency room visits.

Beyond this, more flexible funding solutions would help seniors get back into housing faster using rapid rehousing and targeted affordable housing. There is also a need for additional flexible funding to cover immediate necessities.

To maximize service effectiveness, the new programming should include specialized street outreach aimed at building trust with seniors who are sleeping outside and at increasing the level of care and concern among community members for these homeless neighbors.

Service providers and funders should examine specific issues around senior homelessness as they develop these new approaches, particularly, how trauma affects people in the two age groups concerned (50-65 and 65 and up), what is needed in the service blend to instill a sense of belonging in disconnected seniors and what optimal service outcomes might be for them.

With vision, funding, and focus, senior homelessness is a phrase that will disappear from our vocabulary.