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Old and on the Street: The Graying of America's Homeless

  • Author: Adam Nagourney, The New York Times
  • Updated: June 24, 2016
  • Published May 30, 2016

Homeless men on a street corner where charitable organizations hand out food in downtown Los Angeles, May 15, 2016. The emergence of an older homeless population is creating daunting challenges for social service agencies and governments already struggling to fight poverty. (Monica Almeida/The New York Times)

LOS ANGELES — They lean unsteadily on canes and walkers, or roll along the sidewalks of Skid Row here in beat-up wheelchairs, past soiled sleeping bags, swaying tents and piles of garbage. They wander the streets in tattered winter coats, even in the warmth of spring. They worry about the illnesses of age and how they will approach death without the help of children who long ago drifted from their lives.

"It's hard when you get older," said Ken Sylvas, 65, who has struggled with alcoholism and has not worked since he was fired in 2001 from a meatpacking job. "I'm in this wheelchair. I had a seizure and was in a convalescent home for two months. I just ride the bus back and forth all night."

The homeless in America are getting old.

There were 306,000 people over 50 living on the streets in 2014, the most recent data available, a 20 percent jump since 2007, according to the Department of Housing and Urban Development. They now make up 31 percent of the nation's homeless population.

The demographic shift is mirrored by a noticeable but not as sharp increase among homeless people ages 18 to 30, many who entered the job market during the Great Recession. They make up 24 percent of the homeless population. Like the baby boomers, these young people came of age during an economic downturn, confronting a tight housing and job market. Many of them are former foster children or runaways, or were victims of abuse at home.

But it is the emergence of an older homeless population that is creating daunting challenges for social service agencies and governments already struggling with this crisis of poverty. "Baby boomers have health and vulnerability issues that are hard to tend to while living in the streets," said Alice Callaghan, an Episcopal priest who has spent 35 years working with the homeless in Los Angeles.

Many older homeless people have been on the streets for almost a generation, analysts say, a legacy of the recessions of the late 1970s and early 1980s, federal housing cutbacks and an epidemic of crack cocaine. They bring with them a complicated history that may include a journey from prison to mental health clinic to rehabilitation center and back to the sidewalks.

Some are more recent arrivals and have been forced — at a time of life when some people their age are debating whether to retire to Arizona or to Florida — to learn the ways of homelessness after losing jobs in the latest economic downturn. And there are some on a fixed income who cannot afford the rent in places like Los Angeles, which has a vacancy rate of less than 3 percent.

Sylvia Welker, 70, who was evicted from her home in Lancaster, Calif., about five years ago, in Skid Row in Los Angeles, May 20, 2016. Welker passes the days riding her wheelchair, waiting for the battery to run down so she can return to her room and charge it up for the next day. The emergence of an older homeless population is creating daunting challenges for social service agencies and governments already struggling to fight poverty. (Monica Almeida/The New York Times)

Horace Allong, 60, said he could not afford a one-room apartment and lives in a tent on Crocker Street. Allong, who divorced his wife and left New Orleans for Los Angeles two years ago, said he lost his wallet and all of his identification two weeks after he arrived and has not been able to find a job.

"It's the first time I've been on the streets, so I'm learning," he said. "There's nothing like Skid Row. Skid Row is another world."

The problems with homelessness are hardly uniform across the country. The national homeless population declined by 2 percent from 2014 to 2015, according to the Department of Housing and Urban Renewal. Some communities — including Phoenix and Las Vegas — have declared outright victory in eliminating homelessness among veterans, a top goal of the White House.

But homelessness is rising in big cities where gentrification is on the march and housing costs are rising, like Los Angeles, New York, Honolulu and San Francisco. Los Angeles reported a 5.7 percent increase in its homeless population last year, the second year in a row it had recorded a jump. More than 20 percent of the nation's homeless lived in California last year, according to the housing agency.

Across Southern California, the homeless live in tent encampments clustered on corners from Venice to the San Fernando Valley, and in communities sprouting under highway overpasses or in the dry bed of the Los Angeles River. Their sleeping bags and piles of belongings line sidewalks on Santa Monica Boulevard.

Along with these visible signs of homelessness come complaints about aggressive panhandling, public urination and disorderly conduct, as well as a rise in drug dealing and petty crimes.

"There is a sense out there that some communities are seeing a new visible homeless problem that they have not seen in many years," said Dennis P. Culhane, a professor of social policy at the University of Pennsylvania.

Beleaguered officials in Los Angeles, Seattle and Hawaii have declared states of emergency, rolling out measures to combat homelessness and pledging to increase spending on low-cost housing. Honolulu has imposed a prohibition on sitting or lying on sidewalks in the neighborhood of Waikiki. San Francisco has cleared out some encampments, only for them to sprout up in other parts of the city. Seattle has tried to create designated tent camps that are overseen by social service agencies.

Settling Into Patterns

The aging of the homeless population is on display in cities large and small, but perhaps in no place more than here on Skid Row, a grid of blocks just southeast of the vibrant economic center of downtown Los Angeles, where many of the nation's poor have long flocked, drawn by a year-round temperate climate and a cluster of missions and clinics.

Outside the Hippie Kitchen, which feeds the homeless of Skid Row three mornings a week, the line stretched half a block up Sixth Street on a recent day, a graying gathering of men and women waiting for a breakfast of beans and salad. Garland Balancad, 55, scooping food from his plate, said he had more to worry about than his next meal, where to hide his shopping cart or which sidewalk to lay his sleeping bag on after dark.

"I'm getting old," Balancad said, lifting himself to his feet with a cane. "I don't want to go into one of these shelters. I don't want to get some disease."

An elderly homeless man sleeps on a sidewalk on Skid Row in downtown Los Angeles, April 30, 2016. The emergence of an older homeless population is creating daunting challenges for social service agencies and governments already struggling to fight poverty. (Monica Almeida/The New York Times)

Kin Crawford, 59, said he had fallen out of the job market long ago as he battled alcohol and drug addiction. "Right now, I'm sleeping in someone's garage," he said. "My biggest challenge out here? Access to a bathroom. It's really crazy. That and finding a place to keep your stuff."

This is a fluid population, defying precise count or categorization. Some might enjoy a stretch of stability, holding down a job for a while or finding a spare bed with a friend. But more than anything, these are men and women who, as they enter old age, have settled into patterns they seem unwilling, or unable, to break.

"We are seeing people who have been on the street year after year after year," said Jerry Jones, the director of public policy at the Inner City Law Center in Los Angeles.

Sylvas said the lines at the Hippie Kitchen were growing longer, and there were more tents on the sidewalks. "It's getting worse," he said. "You can see it. A lot more old ones."

'As Sad as You Can Imagine'

Sylvia Welker is 70, but she maneuvers her electric wheelchair around the obstacles of her world — the lurches in the buckling sidewalks, the sharp curb drop on Crocker Street, the piles of clothes on the pavement, the tourists rushing through Skid Row on the way to the Arts District — with confidence and precision.

For Welker, who has been divorced and on her own since 1981, this is the latest stop in a tumultuous journey. She lived in Lancaster, in California's high desert, until she was evicted about five years ago, unable to pay the rent. She tried to sleep on the streets, shivering on the sidewalks at night, until she finally pleaded for a room in the home of a daughter. "I told my daughter I'm not going to make it because of my handicap," she said, referring to her right leg, which she said she almost lost after she was hit by a car.

Her daughter put her up for a few years, but Welker said she eventually left, ending up on Skid Row a year ago. She said she had since lost touch with all three of her children. "They don't even know how to reach me," she said. "They are probably going nuts. I didn't want to interfere with their lives."

The Los Angeles skyline over the streets of the city's Skid Row, May 11, 2016. The emergence of an older homeless population is creating daunting challenges for social service agencies and governments already struggling to fight poverty. (Monica Almeida/The New York Times)

Home for Welker is now a room at a center for the homeless on San Pedro Street, but she has been told, she said, that her program is about to end. She has no idea what she will do next. "I don't know how much longer I'll be there," she said.

"Skid Row is sad," Welker said. "It is as sad as you can imagine. You literally have to live here to see how sad it is."

Welker, chatty with a wide smile and white flowing hair that falls over her shoulders, has her routines. She knows the staggered schedules of the soup kitchens. Her bad leg and wheelchair usually entitle her to a spot at the front of the line, and she brings a plastic baggie to collect extra food to pass on to friends on the streets, or to eat when she returns to her room.

She passes the days riding her wheelchair, waiting for the battery to run down so she can return to her room and charge it up for the next day.

"You have to wait until it goes down to two or three dots," she said, flicking her finger at the battery indicator. "So I just ride up and down the street and say 'hi' to everybody. And when my chair goes down enough, I go back in. I have to charge my chair. And I have to elevate my leg, otherwise I could end up losing it."

The challenges faced by people like Welker have forced advocates for the homeless and government agencies to reconsider what kinds of services they need: It is not just a meal, a roof and rehabilitation anymore.

"The programs for baby boomers are designed to address longstanding programs — mental health, substance abuse," said Benjamin Henwood, an assistant professor at the University of Southern California School of Social Work. "But they are not designed to address the problems of aging, and that is a big problem for homeless treatment in the years ahead."

So the older residents of Skid Row make do, and in the process, tax public services. There is the emergency room at Los Angeles County-USC Medical Center, or the ambulance from Firehouse No. 9 on Skid Row, which brings a crew of medics who are by now well versed on the characters and medical ailments outside the station house.

Homeless veterans of all ages receive housing vouchers, and federally subsidized low-income housing projects give preference to the elderly. But few of the older homeless people have worked the time required to qualify for Social Security, much less put aside money for a 401(k) or employee retirement plan.

That leaves them to turn to Supplemental Security Income, or SSI, a program set up to help poor older people and the disabled that typically pays around $733 a month. But SSI is for people 65 and over, and Social Security does not start until age 62.

By then it might be too late. Experts say the average life span for a homeless person living on the street is 64 years.

"We are dealing with the same issues with a 50-year-old that a housed person would have in their 70s, in terms of physical and mental health," said Anne Miskey, the executive director of the Downtown Women's Center, which provides services for 3,000 homeless women a year in Los Angeles. "It is extremely difficult. And women are affected more than men."

A homeless encampment under the Harbor Freeway, south of downtown Los Angeles, May 11, 2016. The emergence of an older homeless population is creating daunting challenges for social service agencies and governments already struggling to fight poverty. (Monica Almeida/The New York Times)

Many manage as best they can, living outside and maneuvering around the drug dealing, random stabbings and shootings, and crackdowns by the police.

Brenda Gardenshire, 66, who lives in a trim blue tent on a sidewalk she sweeps every morning, said she had learned not to venture out after dark in search of a bathroom, instead using a jar she keeps in her tent.

"You've got a lot of things out here wrong — everybody doing drugs and alcohol, friends and not friends," she said. Still, Gardenshire said she liked her life on the street, saying it was better, at least, than living in a shelter. Her only complaint was how people kept treating her as if she were frail.

"Everyone is like, 'You OK?'" she said. "What do you mean, 'Am I OK?' Or, 'You want to sit down?' Why do I want to sit down?"

New Generation on Skid Row

It is not the older homeless people whom Welker worries about as she surveys Skid Row from the perch of her wheelchair. It is the younger ones, who are slowly changing the makeup of this world.

"I'm 70; I've done my thing," she said. "The younger people, they are losing the best years of their lives. This is not a place to be."

"You see things you wouldn't believe," Welker said. "Someone could be getting killed, someone could be getting knifed. And life goes on. Charities are still handing out coffee and soup."

There were 235,000 homeless Americans between 18 and 30 in 2014, making up 24 percent of the nation's homeless population. That was up from 226,000 in 2007, when the age group made up 20 percent of the total homeless population, according to the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Some of them can be seen on Skid Row. But here in Los Angeles, these younger homeless people have staked out their own spaces to live — on the beaches of Venice, on the garbage-scattered scraps of dirt by the Hollywood Freeway.

Some were bustling on a recent morning through the cramped hallways of My Friend's Place, a two-story ramshackle storefront right up against the edge of the freeway, its entrance hidden off an alley. It is a former recording studio that was turned 18 years ago into a center for homeless youth; nearly 1,500 people between the ages of 18 to 24 came here last year.

That morning, they were a blur of people in T-shirts, tattered jeans and sweatshirts, stopping by for a shower, a meal, job training — including circus schooling on the ropes and hoops in the Cirque du Monde room — or an undisturbed nap on an overstuffed chair in the main room. The center shuts its door at night.

"We are getting sandwiched by real old folks and real young folks," said Heather Carmichael, the executive director of My Friend's Place. "It's horrific."