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    Next chapter in America’s aging boom? Homeless retirees
    • July 2, 2023

    Here are a few things Alex and Holly have learned in the year since they lost their apartment and started sleeping in their 2005 Ford Explorer:

    First, always stuff some cardboard inside your car windows before turning in for the night. “You don’t want nobody peeking in, seeing you’re not gonna be able to respond,” Alex explained.

    Second, bathrooms at Pearson Park in Anaheim, the spot where they stay in the Explorer, open at 8 a.m. and not a minute earlier.

    “Gotta hold it,” Alex said, his quiet voice picking up a couple decibels. “We don’t go outside!”

    Third, in the world of people who are unhoused, age doesn’t always elicit respect.

    “I don’t think anybody cares,” said Alex, who, like some others in story is being identified by his first name to protect his safety.

    “Anyway,” he added, laughing, “who’re you calling old?”

    Alex and Holly are relatively new to being homeless, and whatever life hacks they’ve picked up car camping aren’t particularly unusual. Most people who’ve lived outside for a period of time probably know more.

    But Alex and Holly are both 62 and, because of their age, they’re part of a painful demographic trend – homeless retirees.

    In the past half-decade or so, as homelessness has grown from social ill to social emergency, the fastest-growing subgroup of homeless has been people landing on the streets after age 50. A survey released in June by the Benioff Homelessness and Housing Initiative at UC San Francisco found that nearly half (48%) of single, homeless adults statewide are 50 or older.

    In Southern California – where average rents outpace average Social Security checks – the world of older homeless people is expanding at hyper speed. From 2017 through 2022, the number of people age 55 and older who sought some kind of homeless-related service in Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside and San Bernardino counties grew by 96%, according to California’s Homeless Data Integration System. If you limit that to people ages 65 and up, the numbers either doubled or tripled in each of the four counties.

    During that same period, the number of all homeless people, of any age, jumped by about 45% in the four-county region.

    Eve Garrow, a lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union who tracks homelessness issues in Southern California, describes the aging of the unhoused as “the next phase” in America’s broad demographic shift to an older population.

    “I know a lot of people who are living out their retirement years in homeless shelters,” Garrow said.

    “That’s not something that’s going to happen someday, in the future, maybe,” she added. “It’s happening now.”

    Paul Leon, a long-time advocate for the unhoused and chief executive of National Healthcare & Housing Advisors, says the rise of aging homeless people is an issue that transcends politics.

    “We’ve got 80-year-olds in shelters,” Leon said. “I think most people can agree that’s not tolerable.”

    But Leon notes that demographics and savings patterns and modern economics all point to the idea that the current crop of aging homeless people might be just the start of a grim cycle.

    “In a few years, the number of old people who are homeless, out on streets and in shelters, is going to be big. We’ll all know an aunt or a sister or somebody who is living in a shelter or on the streets,” Leon said.

    “It’ll make today’s homeless problem look small.”

    Roy, a 61-year-old who used to make medical devices, and who needs a cane or a walker to get around, stands in the driveway of the motel where he is staying in Orange, on Thursday, June 29, 2023. In Southern California, where the numbers of people 55 and up who are unhoused has more than doubled in the past seven years. The issue often isn’t about addiction or mental health. It’s about money. (Photo by Mark Rightmire, Orange County Register/SCNG)


    Roy, 61 and unhoused since he turned 55, wants a new hip.

    He also wants a room to live in, or an apartment, but the pressing issue this week is the hip. It’s his right one, and it’s at a point where it’s hard to walk on it much. He’s got a wheelchair and a cane and a walker – just like the one his mother used when she was alive – but he sits a lot more than he walks.

    He’s also got paperwork from a doctor confirming that he needs a new hip. And he’s got a government-issued cell phone that he uses to call Medi-Cal and others he needs to connect with in order to set up the surgery and its requisite stint in rehab.

    But he’s also got a deadline.

    Rent for the motel room where Roy has been staying temporarily ends Sunday, July 2. After that, if he can’t square up the surgery and a rehab bed, he’ll literally roll out the door. Then he’ll try to make his way to Orange, where he’s slept in a truck for most of the past six years. But he says the truck was towed off a few weeks back and he doesn’t have money to get it back, leaving him with a new dilemma — sleep in a park or at an uncle’s house?

    “I hate to bug anybody and change their lives because of me,” Roy said. “So, I’ll probably go back outside.

    “It’ll be difficult because of my condition,” Roy added.

    “But, hey, I know the rules.”

    He followed rules, he said, all his life. He followed rules when he played linebacker at Katella High in Anaheim. He followed rules, later, when he worked in the medical device industry, and after that when he ran his own home repair business.

    He was even trying to follow rules six years ago when he wound up homeless. “But the money was gone and I was just pulled in so many different directions,” he said.

    Since then he’s learned to follow rules about living on the street.

    “I never leave a mess. That’s really the strict one.”

    Roy, as a rule, also avoids homeless shelters.

    As an older unhoused person, he said, he’s found that streets and parks and his old truck are all preferable to living in a group setting with younger, sometimes angrier, people. In shelters, he said, “I worry about everything; my wheelchair getting stolen, getting beaten up, all of that.

    “When you’re not young, in a shelter, it’s pretty easy to become a victim.”

    Roy suggested the problem of living outside as an older person isn’t survival, it’s about respect.

    “People like to look at you and judge,” Roy said. “Without them talking, you know what they’re thinking.

    “I would like to tell them that, at my age, we’re all just struggling to get into a better position, just like anybody; just like I did for a long time,” he added.

    “I’d like to tell them that those looks feel horrible.”

    Michael Wright of Wound Walk OC offers his services to a homeless man living adjacent to the 22 Freeway in Garden Grove in 2021. (Photo by Drew A. Kelley, Contributing Photographer)


    In 1983 there were exactly 175,143 defined-benefit pension plans in the United States, according to historical data from the Department of Labor. Roughly 38% of all private-sector workers had such a pension, which was financed by an employer and often guaranteed the worker some kind of monthly check, in addition to Social Security, for the rest of his or her life.

    That turned out to be the peak for defined-benefit pensions. Over the next 40 years – roughly the length of many worker’s careers – most employers have swapped out defined-benefit pensions for defined-contribution plans, which are optional for workers and, at best, are only partially subsidized by employers.

    Today, about 12% of all private-sector workers have access to an old-school, guaranteed pension. Most public-sector employees – everyone from police to Supreme Court justices – still have such pensions.

    Why does any of this matter?

    Because while addiction and mental illness and domestic violence have fueled the homelessness wave of the past few decades, federal data suggests a key driver going forward might be the simple math – not enough money to pay the rent – of a post-pension economy.

    Only about half of all Americans have any money set aside for retirement, according to the 2019 Consumer Finance Survey, the most recent version of a national poll conducted periodically by the Federal Reserve Board. Even when focusing on workers closer to retirement – people ages 50 to 60 – the survey findings were stark; more than 40% in that age range had nothing set aside for retirement and only 30%  had as much as $100,000. About 12.5% had $500,000.

    For many workers, the focus over the past four decades has been less on big-picture shifts in the American pension system than on day-to-day issues, like the price of rent and gas and milk.

    “It’s always just been work and pay the bills, work and pay the bills,” said Alex, who has worked consistently over the past four decades, usually as a forklift operator for several local beverage companies and sometimes as a vendor, selling beer and hot dogs, at Angels games.

    At 62, Alex says he’d still work if he could. But as he sat in the front seat of his Explorer, he explained his lack of employment by pointing at his knees.

    “These don’t let me get into or out of a forklift anymore,” he said. “And, no, I didn’t have no 401 (k) or whatever.”

    Other data suggests people who made more money than Alex also might face a retirement squeeze in Southern California.

    The 2023 national average Social Security check for a retired worker is about $1,830 a month, according to the Social Security Administration. That’s not enough to cover the average rent for a single-bedroom apartment in Los Angeles ($1,925), Orange ($2,264) and Riverside ($1,899) counties, and only barely enough to cover it in San Bernardino ($1,448) County, according to recent estimates from Zillow.

    And even for local retirees with some income beyond Social Security, making the rent can be tough. A survey from the Census Bureau found that if you’re 65 or older, and you have an income of up to $40,000, you’ll typically spend 53% of your total on rent if you live in Los Angeles or Orange counties, and 45% if you live in Riverside or San Bernardino counties. For people with income of up to $70,000, rent eats up 35% in the Los Angeles/Orange County market and 33% in the Inland Empire.

    “And I’d say all that’s a (expletive) joke,” said Alex from his front seat near an Anaheim park, when asked about the price to move out of his car and into a place to live.

    “You can’t even get a room in a house for less than about $1,200 around here. For an apartment, like what you’re talking about, it’s way more.

    “I can’t even imagine it anymore.”

    Katherine White of Wound Walk OC, speaks during the investigative hearing on homelessness in Orange County at the Hall of Administration, Board Hearing Room on April 20, 2022 in Santa Ana. (Photo by Mark Rightmire, Orange County Register/SCNG)


    That first night wasn’t as hard as you’d think.

    It was 2008 and Helen Muñoz, then 48, was on the streets for the first time, but she wasn’t in tears or particularly afraid.

    “I think I just thought that I’m tough and that I’d be OK,” said Muñoz, now 63.

    The next 14 years would test that. The former small business owner (she ran a house-cleaning service in Huntington Beach) spent time sleeping on the streets and in shelters, and, soon, applying for government assistance for rent.

    For more than a decade, she scrambled for food and shelter and waited for a voucher to help get her back under a permanent roof.

    A year ago she got in. Today, she lives in a subsidized apartment in Anaheim, with $300 a month rent taken directly out of her government check.

    Katherine White, with Wound Walk OC – a nonprofit that provides emergency-level medical aid to people living outdoors and helps them connect with doctors and other services as needed – still checks in on Muñoz, as she does with Roy and Holly and Alex.

    White said a permanent roof isn’t just about comfort. For older people it’s often a matter of life and death.

    “I don’t know if Helen would be dead without a place to live. But I do know that living outdoors takes decades off lives.”

    Housing advocates Garrow and Leon among others, suggest that full-time housing – putting a homeless person into some kind of home – is more humane, safer and ultimately cheaper than temporary shelters. They say that’s true for the unhoused of all ages, but particularly for the coming wave of unhoused seniors.

    For now, Muñoz doesn’t worry about that. Illness and injuries – some a result of living on the streets – leave her unable to work. Her one complaint, she says, is that she’d like to be on the first floor rather than the third, and she’s hoping to make that switch.

    But, mostly, she’s happy to not be an older person living on the streets.

    Muñoz said her two granddaughters, born just before and just after she first became homeless, sometimes come by to visit. They play cards and watch scary movies and then they go home. It’s the kind of visit she couldn’t have in a shelter or a tent or a car.

    In this new place, during the first night, Muñoz wasn’t as tough as before.

    “I cried,” Muñoz said. “I was so happy. I just said, ‘God, what took so long?’”

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