When you look at a person you assume to be homeless, be it on an off-ramp or sleeping in a doorway, do you know what you’re seeing? Or, more importantly, who you are seeing?

Many people look right past them, preferring not to acknowledge that the issue exists — and, by extension, denying that those who experience homeless exist as well.

But the fact is that the men, women and children experiencing homelessness are people with names, faces and histories. And, an increasing number of them are older — old enough to be called seniors.

“There has been a lot of local and national conversation about the aging population experiencing homelessness and what we are seeing on the Human Services Campus,” said HSC Executive Director Amy Schwabenlender. HSC is a 13-acre campus in Phoenix where 15 independent nonprofit agencies collaborate on a range of services designed to help individuals get off the streets and into permanent housing.

“Homelessness is not easy at any age,” Schwabenlender said. “But if you are older, the challenges intensify.”

“If you are unsheltered for any amount of time and if you have health issues, you age faster,” added Dana Kennedy, state director of AARP Arizona. “I think if you look around at the people who are holding signs on street corners, more and more of them appear to be seniors. Being out on the street definitely ages you.”

At the Brian Garcia Welcome Center, the initial entry point for services on the Human Services Campus, 32% of the 6,736 individuals served since July 1, 2018, were 50 or older.  

For clients 60 years or older served on the campus, 27% reported the primary reason for their homelessness was economics. More than 14% had been evicted, higher than the 10.5% rate among all HSC clients served during

fiscal year 2019, and nearly 14% said relocation problems pushed them onto the streets.

“There are a range of reasons for the elderly to end up without a home,” Schwabenlender said. “Death of a spouse, divorce, health issues and medical

emergencies for people on fixed income or Social Security only begin to scratch the surface.”

For those who may have relocated to Arizona thinking their Social Security checks will go father, “they face increasing rental rates and an eviction system that could force them out of an apartment in 30 days, among other challenges. Elderly people are so much more vulnerable,” Kennedy said.

With a limited number of shelter beds valley wide — the 450 beds at Central Arizona Shelter Services, the state’s largest homeless shelter on the Human Services Campus, are filled nearly every night — and a lack of affordable housing, the availability of shelters and shelter beds specifically for an elderly population is nonexistent.

To address the issue of the challenges faced by the growing number of older Arizonans falling into homelessness and how local organizations are responding, AARP has scheduled a town hall-style discussion at the AARP Aging Networking Breakfast on Wednesday, Oct. 9, at the Beatitudes Campus — Luther Life Center, 1610 W. Glendale Ave. in Phoenix.

There is no charge for the town hall on homeless seniors, which begins at 7:30 a.m., but registration is encouraged. Breakfast will be served and the discussion will end by 9:30 a.m.

The panel, which will be moderated by Kennedy, includes Schwabenlender; Lisa Glow, CEO of Central Arizona Shelter Services; and Wendy Johnson, executive director of the Justa Center, which provides life-sustaining resources, services and support to homeless seniors.

“I don’t think we really know how large the scope of older homelessness is in Arizona as well as nationally,” Kennedy said. “That’s what this town hall will address: the scope of the problem, how organizations are responding and what we can do as individuals to help. JN


Steve Carr owns the Kur Carr Group. To register for the AARP town hall, go to local.aarp.org/aarp-event/aarp-az-aging-network-breakfast-phoenix-az-10919-h5n8qftksnc.html.

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