Homelessness and Aging

The National Governor’s Association characterizes a homeless person as “one who is unable to secure permanent and stable housing without assistance.” The term “homeless” includes many categories such as the de-institutionalized, the chronically mentally ill, skid row alcoholics, street people, etc.

According to the researchers Damrosch and Strasser, “Many shelters focus on assisting the situationally distressed new poor.”

The aged homeless person has been poorly studied and most of all, poorly cared for. The drastic reduction in city budgets for low cost housing units and the gentrification of large urban areas have undoubtedly left poor elders attempting to survive on our city streets. They are also potential victims of those who will prey on them and take advantage of their unfortunate living conditions. Many are living in single room occupancies (SRO) and in rundown city hotels. The researcher Keigher found among the aged homeless who have been evicted, an increased number of violent and tragic deaths occurring for those living on our nation’s city streets.

Who, then, are these street seniors and what are their problems? The question was answered by the researcher Blakeney, based on her experiences at a shelter in Boston Harbor, Maine.

The following is a case study of one individual that highlights the “evolution” of a homeless experience.

Mary, a secondary school teacher, began her descent into alcoholism sometime in her mid-40s. Her family, in frustration gradually withdrew their support from Mary because of her persistent use of alcohol. She lost her job, family and respect, ending up on the streets of Maine. Fortunately, Mary had a certain charisma and genuine warmth that led others to assist in her eventual survival.

Of the homeless shelters that have been studied, there are those that are currently providing active and secure environments. It was found that three-fourths of the residents in these facilities were diagnosed alcoholics and had pulmonary, neurologic and cardio-vascular problems. Staff employed at these facilities continually encourage regular attendance at Alcoholics Anonymous gatherings as a means of taking hold of their addiction and by doing so, begin to understand the reason for that addiction.

The researchers show that because of the homeless person’s vulnerability to numerous illnesses, assault and/or death, they clearly recommend an urgent need for construction of additional shelters to meet the needs of this population.

Here are the characteristics that identify the homeless elders with all of their complexities that accompany the problem. The list that follows was designed by the researcher Blakeney:

  • mean age of 70.6 years
  • 90% male, 10% female
  • average of 4.5 years homeless
  • 40% had families but were alienated from them
  • 23% were widowed but had children
  • 20% were single
  • 16% unclear about status of family and children
  • 53% were service veterans
  • 70% received Social Security
  • 30% had Medicaid benefits
  • 25% had Veterans benefits
  • 33% had high school education
  • 29% attended college or graduate school.

According to the research, “Homelessness is attributed to loss of what is described as a personal effectiveness.” They further declare, “Homelessness is viewed through the lens of society as an ineffective behavior and a way of calling attention to the homeless person’s problem.” According to the researcher Doolin, “When the homeless person’s self-esteem begins to improve, it acts as an inner form of assurance that they recognize as their personal worth and integrity.”

I recently came across the following literature pertaining to programs that are still functioning that relate to the homeless population in the United States. These facilities employ nurses and social workers along with other professional personnel who play a pivotal role in the lives of those living in these protective shelters. For example, one particular program offers various services such as a walk-in clinic, clean and safe shelters, outreach sites and food vans that provide desperately needed nutritional meals. They offer referrals for dentistry, podiatry, and when needed, drug detoxification as a link to local hospitals that are familiar with the homeless phenomenon. They also employ trained staff who welcome the homeless individuals who are seeking a way to regain control over their lives.

As a concerned society, we are ultimately obligated to support the following resources, regarding the homeless population:

  1. financial help through state, federal and local governmental programs that deal with the issues of the homeless and their safety
  2. a societal recognition of the homeless individuals’ plight, but as important
  3. a promise that offers an extended hand when requested whether with funds or a practical realizable social support system.

Quotable Quote: “Withhold not help from the needy when it is in your power to render it.” Book of Proverbs

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