The landscape of the homeless population has started to change. Since the homeless are invisible to much of society, the demographics can shift sharply and quickly before it becomes news. But those who oversee programs for the homeless will tell you that more and more seniors are living on the streets. By some estimates, nearly half the homeless population is aged 50 or older.
The math is devastatingly simple: The cost of healthcare goes up, the cost of groceries goes up and the cost of prescription drugs goes up but, for millions of seniors on Social Security, their income remains fixed—at best. As states cut back on subsidized housing, that means more elderly Americans find themselves with nowhere to live.
A Huge and Growing Problem
The Department of Housing and Urban Development told Congress last year that the population of homeless aged 50 or over was more than 300,000, twenty percent higher than in 2007. In 1990 the peak age for the homeless was 30, today it’s 55. The elderly have even taken the top spot from the more traditional populations, including drug addicts and the mentally ill.
Medical Expenses Cause Devastation
As the cost of medical care, medical insurance and prescription drugs continues to rise, the elderly with chronic diseases are the most likely to end up homeless. Those between the ages of 50 and 65 are most vulnerable because they’re not eligible for Medicare until age 65. A major medical expense or surgery can end a career and wipe out savings fast. Seniors who lose a job due to illness and are in the job market after age 50 are pretty much out of luck.
A Desperate Lack of Affordable Housing
Another factor weighing on the elderly is the cost of housing. With one bedroom apartments now renting for nearly as much as a house payment used to be, even a small apartment can cost more than most seniors get in Social Security. If the elderly are forced to sell their home to pay off other debts, they quickly discover that there are few affordable options. The number of people waiting for senior housing assistance in Los Angeles is so long officials closed the wait list.
The Benefits Go-Round
Even if seniors can get assistance for housing, in many states they find themselves treated like they’re deadbeats, and even thrown into the social service mechanism alongside populations with very different needs, including drug addicts and the mentally ill. Getting benefits can also be a challenge without a fixed address or bank account. Some states require regular check-ins to keep benefits, for seniors living in their cars without a phone there’s no way to respond to update requests. We’ve become so fixated on just a few people gaming the system that we’ve made it nearly impossible for the people who most need those benefits to get them.
For those in their thirties and forties the warning should be clear. Save more money now so an illness or sudden job loss won’t leave you out on the street at an age when living in your car is tough. Don’t depend too much on paper investments. Income producing property, especially one you could move into as a resident manager and liquid hard assets can provide a cushion against both the unknowns of the economy and sudden illness.