Many baby boomers across the country are now coming to terms with the hard reality that working for your entire adult life is no longer enough to guarantee you’ll have a roof over your head in your later years.
Thanks in part to a series of recessions, high housing costs and a shortage of affordable housing, older adults are now the fastest-growing segment of America’s homeless population, according to a report in the Wall Street Journal, based on data from the Department of Housing and Urban Development.
“The fact that we are seeing elderly homelessness is something that we have not seen since the Great Depression,” University of Pennsylvania social policy professor Dennis Culhane told WSJ.
Here’s what has triggered what some experts are calling a “silver tsunami” — and what they say needs to change to reverse the tide.
Baby boomers are increasingly becoming homeless
Dr. Margot Kushel, a professor of medicine and director of the Center for Vulnerable Populations and Benioff Homelessness and Housing Initiative at the University of California San Francisco (UCSF), studies homelessness through a lens of its health impacts. And Kushel’s research shows there’s an escalating rate of homelessness among older Americans.
In a 2020 journal article for the American Society on Aging, Kushel wrote that of all the homeless single adults in the early 1990s, 11% were aged 50 and older. By 2003, she says that percentage grew to 37%.
Now, the over-50 demographic represents half of the homeless single adults in the U.S. — with no sign of their numbers slowing, leaving baby boomers (those aged 57 to 75) particularly vulnerable.
“Elderly homelessness has been rare within the contemporary homeless problem. We’ve always had very few people over 60 who’ve been homeless historically,” Culhane from the University of Pennsylvania told PBS NewsHour.
But in recent years, Culhane says that has changed. Older Americans, he says, are “now arguably the fastest rising group.”
Read more: Thanks to Jeff Bezos, you can now use $100 to cash in on prime real estate — without the headache of being a landlord. Here’s how
Here’s what’s changed
After living through multiple recessions, leaving some of them with little savings, aging boomers are also now contending with insufficient affordable housing.
Low-cost assisted living centers are extremely limited — with labor shortages, inflation and reduced funding putting facilities at risk of closing.
And even rent is becoming increasingly out of reach in certain areas, like Massachusetts, New York and Florida.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, Florida resident Judy Schroeder told WSJ the apartment building she was living in was sold to a new owner, raising her monthly rent by more than $500. Schroeder lost her part-time job, leaving her living off Social Security alone, and couch-surfing for months before she finally found a place in late August.
“I never thought, at 71 years old, that I would be in this position,” she said.
What can be done?
Researchers at UCSF told WSJ that about half of the homeless older adults in places like Oakland, California and New York, became unhoused for the first time after their 50th birthday.
These individuals pointed to a major event, like the death of a spouse or a medical emergency, as the trigger.
“It’s an entirely different population,” said Kushel. “These are people who worked their whole lives. They had typical lives, often working physically demanding jobs, and never made enough to put money away.”
She says expanding the supply of affordable housing and availability of rental assistance programs, eviction protections and renters’ rights could be key to preventing homelessness.
Some cities, like San Diego, have even piloted programs to provide rental subsidies for a limited time to older, low-income adults to help them find their feet.
There’s also the matter of income, as advocates point out that the federal minimum wage of $7.25 has failed to keep up with inflation. And while most states supplement federal programs like Supplemental Security Income (SSI) and Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI), Kushel believes increasing SSI or state supplements could make the difference for older adults and those with disabilities struggling to afford housing.
“In a country as wealthy as the United States, homelessness for anyone — but particularly older adults — is unconscionable,” Kushel wrote in 2020.
“We have the means to end homelessness in older adults. By increasing affordable housing for older adults, engaging in targeted prevention efforts, and building off the success of permanent supportive housing, we can make homelessness for older adults rare and brief.”
What to read next
This article provides information only and should not be construed as advice. It is provided without warranty of any kind.