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MEMPHIS, Tenn. – On a chilly January morning, Tony Thomas stopped by a small house with the hopes of picking up some breakfast and coffee.
That Thursday, dozens of people were milling around in near-freezing weather in the backyard of Manna House, a nonprofit serving the local unhoused population. They waited for showers, clothes or hygiene kits, which included toothpaste, lotion, socks and hand warmers. Others ate or sipped coffee with powdered creamer and sugar. Most tried to keep warm, including Thomas, who wasn’t wearing gloves.
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At 50, Thomas and many of the other people at Manna House, are part of a growing cohort of homeless older Americans, though he is on the younger side of that trend. As baby boomers age into senior citizens, a series of recessions and the lack of a strong social safety net have pushed more and more elderly people into homelessness — a number that’s only expected to rise.
Thomas said he had had a relatively normal life in Memphis. He was born in the city and moved back after getting a cooking certificate in North Carolina. He has two grown children, who live out of state, and he had a good job as a chef at a restaurant in a Memphis suburb. But after pleading guilty to aggravated assault in 2016, he served six years in prison, upending his life.
When he was released in Jan. 2022, he was 49 years old and everything had changed. A felony conviction made it nearly impossible for him to find work, and many of the people he could have stayed with had died while he was incarcerated.
A year later, Thomas is still homeless, he told the PBS NewsHour.
There is no current federal data on homelessness disaggregated by age, except for the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s yearly reports, which differentiate between youth, considered age 25 and younger, and adults.
But experts in homelessness note that the average age of sample unhoused populations on community levels has risen over the past four decades.
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Thomas’ grown daughter lives many hours south in Alabama and has suggested her father stay with her, but he doesn’t want to impose on her family. Plus, he said, he worries about unpredictable Alabama weather, like tornadoes and hurricanes.
Though Thomas carries nearly all his belongings in a small backpack and regularly sleeps on the street, he’s devoted to his neatness, shaving his graying beard regularly and keeping his skin moisturized with donated lotion. The fleece he wears under a well-maintained leather jacket matches his ear warmers, and his sneakers are a bright, clean blue — his favorite color.
At Manna House, co-founder and co-director Peter Gathje serves as many people as possible during their limited hours, often seeing the same crowd Monday and Thursday mornings for breakfast, showers and warmth, and Monday evenings for takeaway dinners. The other days of the week, unhoused people rely on other nonprofits for food or supplies, guests at Manna House told the NewsHour.
Pater Gathje, co-director of Manna House, poses on Jan. 26, 2023 inside the nonprofit’s building that serves unhoused people two days a week. Gathje said he’s noticed a “definite shift” in the age of the population Manna House serves. Photo by Hannah Grabenstein/PBS NewsHour
Gathje said he’s seen the average age of his guests increase over the 17 years the organization has been open.
“Some of that might just be that everybody who was on the streets when they were 40 or 50 is still on the streets. But we do see new people. And of course a lot of our guests who were in their 40s and 50s are dead,” Gathje said.
In 2004, Dr. Margot Kushel, director of UCSF’s Center for Vulnerable Populations and Benioff Homelessness and Housing Initiative, and her colleagues compared the populations of homeless individuals over time using historical data from studies of people in San Francisco with HIV and AIDS. They discovered that among unhoused single adults without children, the percentage older than 50 had increased from 11 percent in 1990 to around 37 percent in 2003.
In subsequent studies, Kushel’s research group found that number has risen to about 50 percent today.
“Elderly homelessness has been rare within the contemporary homeless problem. We’ve always had very few people over 60 who’ve been homeless historically. But of course that’s changed as this group has come in. It’s now arguably the fastest rising group,” said Dennis Culhane, professor of social policy at the University of Pennsylvania.
The vast majority of homeless adults are white, but when weighted for demographics, people of color are disproportionately represented among unhoused populations.
According to the 2022 State of Homelessness report by the National Alliance to End Homelessness, although 18 out of every 10,000 Americans are homeless, that number jumps to 52 for Black Americans, 45 for Native Americans and a whopping 109 for Pacific Islanders.
The ballooning population of older homeless people is composed largely of younger baby boomers, who endured the recessions of the late 1970s and early 1980s as well as the Great Recession in 2008.
In 1983, young Black men in their 20s had an unemployment rate of nearly 25 percent, Culhane noted in a 2019 report on rising elderly homelessness. The same report indicated that in New York City, Los Angeles County and Boston, the population of homeless people older than 65 will likely triple by 2030.
“It’s this large group of people whose lives have been essentially thrown off track by the economy of the ‘80s. And there’s strong research that shows that if you don’t get into the labor market in your 20s, the odds that you will are very significantly diminished,” Culhane said.
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There’s no single reason for the rise in the older homeless population. Weak social safety nets, mass incarceration policies and an insufficient supply of affordable housing are among the many factors, according to Kushel, Culhane and other experts.
Unlike many other intractable social issues, the phenomenon of people having nowhere to go is relatively new, Culhane said. Fifty years ago, indigent people often lived in low-income housing in areas like Skid Row in Los Angeles, the Bowery in New York City and the red-light district in Boston, Culhane said. While often unsafe or unclean, they were still homes, with walls and a roof.
But beginning in the 1980s, with rising unemployment, a deepening recession and a shift away from the construction of affordable housing, many low-income people — often Black and Hispanic — started to drift into homelessness. Urban renewal revitalized downtowns that once housed many of the area’s poorer people, and the nation’s supply of affordable housing dwindled.
Thomas displays some of the contents of his hygiene kit from Manna House. Photo by Hannah Grabenstein/PBS NewsHour
Experts the PBS NewsHour spoke with disagree on the extent to which President Ronald Reagan’s policies impacted the current crisis of elderly homelessness, but all agree his administration played at least some part. Among the contributing factors was the era’s anti-welfare rhetoric, which demonized people relying on the nation’s social safety net, Culhane said. That social perspective was political red meat for Republican politicians, who spent the next decade-plus constricting it.
Under Reagan’s policies, the nation’s affordable housing supply began to shrink. Today, 73 percent of extremely low-income renters — defined as households whose incomes are at or below the poverty line or 30 percent of their area’s median income — pay more than half of their income for housing, according to the Center on Budget and Priority Policies.
According to the National Low Income Housing Coalition, across the country, there are only 36 affordable and available rental homes for every 100 extremely low-income renter households. Some states, such as Nevada and California, have fewer than 25 affordable rental homes available for every 100 extremely low-income renter households; only nine states have more than 50 available for every 100 households.
In total, more than 1.7 million extremely low-income renter households with an older adult spend more than half of their income on rent and utilities, according to a 2021 brief from Justice in Aging.
“This is a Reagan-era problem, but we haven’t fixed it since,” said Eric Tars, legal director at the National Homelessness Law Center. “It has been 40 years since Reagan was in office. He, and the Congress at that point, were the ones who cut the affordable housing budget by more than half. But then every subsequent Congress never made up that gap. And it hasn’t been made up at the state or local level.”
There are other direct and indirect reasons for homelessness. The federal government’s Supplemental Security Income, or SSI, is insufficient for many people and difficult to qualify for, Culhane said. It also has not increased commensurate with inflation, even with cost of living increases, he added.
Many people who are low-income also have “network impoverishment,” Tars said. It’s not just that they are poor, but so are many others in their familial and social circles. People at risk of experiencing homelessness are less likely to have people who can provide personal safety nets for them.
Older people are also more likely to experience health issues, which can lead to medical debt, Tars noted.
The rise in elderly homelessness, he said, is not the result of “individual bad choices people are making.”
“This is an injury, this is a chronic illness, because people are old, and our social safety net isn’t catching those people,” Tars said.
Medical issues don’t just cause homelessness; they can also be the result of being unhoused. Homelessness places an enormous burden on people’s bodies, research shows, with experts often saying unhoused people are more biologically similar to housed people who are 10 to 20 years older.
In her research, Kushel has found that among the unhoused population who are 50 and older, about half had been homeless at some point before they were 50, while the other half were homeless for the first time — like Thomas.
The latter group typically had worked their whole lives, she said, hovering around the poverty level but always with housing. But a combination of a few life changes forced them from their homes. These events included losing a job, getting sick, a spouse or partner getting sick, separation from a partner, or the death of a partner or parent.
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And for those who first become homeless after 50, life expectancies can be even worse than the already early death rate for the general elderly homeless population.
In her research of unhoused people older than 50 in Oakland, California, Kushel found that their median age of death was 64. Compared to the general Oakland population and adjusted for age, the mortality rate for homeless people was 3.5 times higher, according to one of Kushel’s studies.
There’s evidence that the wave of elderly homeless people will crest around 2030, Culhane said, and then it will start to recede, largely due to the deaths of people in the boomer generation.
Manna House serves around 250 people weekly, Gathje estimated. There aren’t a lot of spaces for community for people without homes, he added.
“The vast majority of people are so motivated to get out [of homelessness], they want desperately to get out, and what they need is a little help. And so we’re not talking about a population that can’t be helped,” Culhane said. “No — this is a group of people who resoundingly demonstrate that they want the hell out of this hell that they’re living in. And we need to stand beside them and support them in their own self-determination and their own basic survival instinct.”
Thomas knows that feeling. He doesn’t want to be homeless, but he sees no way out. In the year he’s been homeless, he’s found that without a steady source of income, he has nowhere to turn. He wants to work, he said.
Being homeless is tough for Thomas, and scary. When he has wifi, he’ll watch the news on the cracked screen of his cell phone so he knows what areas to avoid. He’s heard of people getting harassed or attacked, he said, and he feels that because homeless people have nowhere to go, they’re easy prey for those who might harm them.
Around 10 a.m., Manna House started closing up for the day. Folks in the heated tent in the backyard grabbed their coffee and their belongings and made their way out front. They would head off to nearby churches, or parks where other food was being given away, or like Thomas, they’d ride the bus until the evening, trying to stay warm.
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