“Home,” wrote the poet Robert Frost, “is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.”
So why are there so many Americans who can’t seem to find that elusive place where they will be taken in, cared for and loved?
Like so many things, homelessness is a complicated issue. It is tied to housing costs, to job availability, to substance abuse and mental illness. It is related to a society that increasingly separates the haves from the have-nots.
Florida, with its agreeable climate and transient population, has long grappled with the challenges of a large homeless population and, though strides have been made in recent years, especially among the veteran population, far too many people exist without a place to call home.
Recent efforts in Sarasota County and throughout Southwest Florida are showing signs of progress through “housing first” programs, educational efforts to help in job searches and financial literacy, as well as services for school-age children.
Yet one of the most heartbreaking realities is the rise in the number of homeless seniors. It has been estimated by the Homelessness Research Institute that by 2020, the number of homeless older adults in the United States will increase by 33 percent over the past decade. The New York Times reported that in 2014, people over 50 made up 31 percent of the homeless population nationwide.
It can be hard to know exactly how many older adults in any particular area are living on the streets or in shelters, because the annual count mandated by the federal government includes only three age groups: under 18, 18-24 and older than 24. Other targeted groups are families, unaccompanied children and veterans. There is no particular category for older adults and thus it is hard to address the special needs of this population.
Yet, one thing is certain: With the aging of the Baby Boomers, this group can only grow.
It is heart-wrenching to think about children who have no stable home or veterans who have sacrificed for this nation now sleeping on the streets, or families trying to raise children without reliable shelter. But it is just as upsetting to imagine an older person, often facing daunting health problems, who has no place to call home and nowhere to turn for assistance.
My maternal grandmother was a part of our household for all my childhood and she remained so until she died. It seemed perfectly normal to me, and I look back on her presence as a most enriching element of my life. That same grandmother welcomed her own mother into her family for most of her life. It was just what people did in an earlier time.
Today, not so much, and there a lot of reasons. Family members are strewn all over the country, finances can be challenging for young families, and relationships can be fraught with difficulties. Several generations under the same roof is not a situation that works for everyone.
The reality is that some seniors have no family, or certainly no one they can call on when times get tough. Then there is the matter of mental illness and cognitive decline that can limit an individual’s ability to seek the help needed.
In Charlotte County, the Gulf Coast Partnership working to end homelessness reports that about 10 percent of those seeking assistance last year were over 65. Angela Hogan, chief executive officer of the Partnership, says this number is growing at a time when overall homelessness is declining.
For some, it is simply a lack of financial resources. Finding affordable housing on a limited income is an increasingly difficult task in this region.
For others, Hogan said, there are issues involving mental illness or dementia.
She often sees older men battling substance abuse who have lost their wives, the ones who helped them stay on an even keel. Too many older women, she said, have been taken advantage of by relatives or partners and simply are not capable of managing their own affairs.
These issues will only get worse if they do not get the attention they deserve. A place to start would be to determine the scope of the problem by including this age group in the annual counts.
But, perhaps most of all, there is a need to assist older adults so that they can stay safely in their homes with the necessary services at their disposal. In the long run, this is far more economical, not to mention much more humane, than trying to address homelessness once it occurs.