Old and on the Street: The Graying of America’s Homeless

Extracts from a newspaper article by Adam Nagourney from the May 31 New York Times

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But it is the emergence of an older homeless population that is creating daunting challenges for social service agencies and governments already struggling with this crisis of poverty. “Baby boomers have health and vulnerability issues that are hard to tend to while living in the streets,” said Alice Callaghan, an Episcopal priest who has spent 35 years working with the homeless in Los Angeles.

Many older homeless people have been on the streets for almost a generation, analysts say, a legacy of the recessions of the late 1970s and early 1980s, federal housing cutbacks and an epidemic of crack cocaine. They bring with them a complicated history that may include a journey from prison to mental health clinic to rehabilitation center and back to the sidewalks.

Some are more recent arrivals and have been forced — at a time of life when some people their age are debating whether to retire to Arizona or to Florida — to learn the ways of homelessness after losing jobs in the latest economic downturn. And there are some on a fixed income who cannot afford the rent in places like Los Angeles, which has a vacancy rate of less than 3 percent.

But homelessness is rising in big cities where gentrification is on the march and housing costs are rising, like Los Angeles, New York, Honolulu and San Francisco. Los Angeles reported a 5.7 percent increase in its homeless population last year, the second year in a row it had recorded a jump. More than 20 percent of the nation’s homeless lived in California last year, according to the housing agency.

Across Southern California, the homeless live in tent encampments clustered on corners from Venice to the San Fernando Valley, and in communities sprouting under highway overpasses or in the dry bed of the Los Angeles River. Their sleeping bags and piles of belongings line sidewalks on Santa Monica Boulevard.

The aging of the homeless population is on display in cities large and small, but perhaps in no place more than here on Skid Row, a grid of blocks just southeast of the vibrant economic center of downtown Los Angeles, where many of the nation’s poor have long flocked, drawn by a year-round temperate climate and a cluster of missions and clinics.

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Outside the Hippie Kitchen, which feeds the homeless of Skid Row three mornings a week, the line stretched half a block up Sixth Street on a recent day, a graying gathering of men and women waiting for a breakfast of beans and salad. Garland Balancad, 55, scooping food from his plate, said he had more to worry about than his next meal, where to hide his shopping cart or which sidewalk to lay his sleeping bag on after dark. “I’m getting old,” Mr. Balancad said, lifting himself to his feet with a cane. “I don’t want to go into one of these shelters. I don’t want to get some disease.”

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For Ms. Welker, who has been divorced and on her own since 1981, this is the latest stop in a tumultuous journey. She lived in Lancaster, in California’s high desert, until she was evicted about five years ago, unable to pay the rent. She tried to sleep on the streets, shivering on the sidewalks at night, until she finally pleaded for a room in the home of a daughter. “I told my daughter I’m not going to make it because of my handicap,” she said, referring to her right leg, which she said she almost lost after she was hit by a car.

Her daughter put her up for a few years, but Ms. Welker said she eventually left, ending up on Skid Row a year ago. She said she had since lost touch with all three of her children. “They don’t even know how to reach me,” she said. “They are probably going nuts. I didn’t want to interfere with their lives.”

It is not the older homeless people whom Ms. Welker worries about as she surveys Skid Row from the perch of her wheelchair. It is the younger ones, who are slowly changing the makeup of this world.

 

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