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Community & Behavioral Health | Recovery | Social Change


Changing the Conversation

Elders in Recovery: Locked in Poverty and Out of a Home

05/20/16 08:54 AM | Gloria Dickerson | Poverty, Homelessness, Elders



With over 50 years of mental health recovery, I was flourishing. In my mid-fifties, I had my first full time job in years. I was working using knowledge and experiences from academic training and my personal recovery. I felt secure in my ability to overcome life challenges. I was proud of the effort I invested in my recovery and my work with a group of knowledgeable and passionate folks helping others overcome the challenges of homelessness, mental illness, trauma, and substance abuse.

However, my success and my valued role were short lived. As I was enjoying my life’s lot, chronic illness began to steal my mobility. Age and obesity-related chronic illnesses slivered in, sprouting new challenges. Physical challenges and illness were now front and center crowding out my dreams of security and well-being. The physical challenges replaced my progress with mental health recovery. My anxiety skyrocketed—bringing new meaning to the word “challenges.” My ability to hold down a full-time job ended too quickly. Try as I might, working full time, paying rent, and maintaining stable housing dwindled. (Read Gloria's thoughts on the federal commitment necessary to end homelessness.)

It was hard not to “cry over spilled milk” and feel that my life was unfulfilled. After years of the ups and downs of mental health recovery, like my peers, I have learned to turn lemons into lemonade and “make do.” However, the lemonade in this case was too acidic, lacked sweetness, and failed to quench my thirst. But, we push through and survive, knowing that the “self-pity pot” gets old very fast. 

Services and supports led me out of homelessness to housing. I was lucky to have stellar colleagues who provided emotional support and housing leads. The CEO at the Center for Social Innovation (C4), where I was working, connected me with HEARTH, Inc. in Boston, MA. As I went through the process, I found that HEARTH Inc. is a model of recovery-oriented housing. HEARTH turned out to be a blessing. I was helped with housing, support services, and found allies. The leadership team at C4 made a way for me to work as much as I could. My situation has improved. I now live in elderly housing, but it is truly sad that so many of my peers have not found allies, resources, and the safety that leads to a home with needed services. 

Providers serving people with mental illness do not seem to anticipate and plan for the possibility that as people age they will encounter chronic illnesses. No preventive measures are in place to respond to the fact that chronic illness is a direct path to homelessness. At the end of the rainbow, for many elders, will homelessness replace the pot of gold? Is homelessness the reward for all the hard work of mental health recovery? Will seniors, after years of surviving mental health challenges, one day wake up and find themselves locked into poverty and out of a home?

Elder Homelessness Facts

  • Elder homelessness is on the rise and likely to accelerate. America has only 3 million affordable housing units for the 10 million households that need them, according to the Bipartisan Policy Center’s housing report.
  • Elder incomes often are fixed or declining. Households with people in their late 60's have $15,000 less income than those with people in their late 50's, and 24 percent of households with people older than 80 years live on less than $15,000 per year, according to Harvard’s Joint Center for Housing Studies. More than half of low-income elder households must spend so much of their money on housing that they cannot afford adequate food or healthcare. This puts older renters at high risk of homelessness.

What are the causes of elder homelessness?

  • Housing and income are not the only causes of elder homelessness. Late Baby Boomers who came of age during the recession of the 1970's and 1980's experienced decreased wages, high rates of unemployment, and the proliferation of crack cocaine that led to addiction and involvement in the criminal justice system, according to Dennis Culhane and colleagues in a 2013 article in Analyses of Social Issues and Public Policy.

Two paths to homelessness

  • There are two pathways into elder homelessness. Some become homeless at a younger age and remain homeless; others have their first experience of homelessness when they are older adults (National Alliance to End Homelessness, 2010).

What will help?

  • Services and rental assistance: Services to resolve the immediate housing crisis, enrollment in benefits, connection to treatment and family (or other supports in the community) and short-term rental assistance.
  • Rapid Re-Housing: Federal programs support permanent supportive housing and rapid re-housing, but ending elder homelessness requires taking these interventions to scale.
  • Rental Assistance: Vulnerable older adults also should be protected from becoming homeless. The 2014 report by Harvard’s Joint Center for Housing Studies noted that, while vulnerable older Americans need rental assistance, there are only sufficient federal resources to provide the assistance to one of three income-eligible renters aged 62 and older. Providing rental assistance to every eligible low-income elder would end homelessness for older adults. The Bipartisan Policy Center Housing Commission recently proposed this strategy and also recommended better coordination of housing and services to ensure housing stability for older Americans.

Learn more about the Housing First approach by registering for t3's upcoming course "Housing First 101."

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Image by Jonas Haggqvist (CC BY-SA 2.0).

Gloria Dickerson

Written by Gloria Dickerson

Gloria Dickerson is a Recovery Specialist at the Center for Social Innovation. Her expertise in recovery derives from academic training and lived experience of recovery from trauma, mental illness, and homelessness. Gloria received a B.S. from Tufts University and has completed master’s level studies in Instructional Design and Psychiatric Rehabilitation.