April 23, 2019
By Amita Sharma
April 23, 2019
[This is an excerpt of the California Dream collaboration’s Graying California. Explore the full series here.]
He is among the rapidly growing number of homeless seniors across the nation.
”I can’t sleep solid because I don’t want to get my throat cut,” said Russell. “I lost a friend here who got stabbed to death.”
He pointed to his cane as his only defense in case he gets attacked.
“This is my problem right here — trying to get up with two bad knees,” Russell said as he attempted to stand upright. “I had two surgeries to replace two hips and being cold all night doesn’t help.”
In Los Angeles County alone, senior homelessness spiked 22% in 2018 even though overall homelessness dipped.
“We saw an increase from just over 4,000 individuals 62 and older to just over 4,800,” said Peter Lynn, executive director of the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority. “They have vulnerabilities. They have complex medical situations. Everyone is looking at this with real concern. This is not a population we want to have unsheltered.”
San Diego, San Francisco and Sacramento counties have also seen increases in their homeless populations of people 55 and older in recent years.
In Los Angeles County, seniors are the fastest growing part of the homeless population. Senior homelessness, age 62 and up, increased 22% in 2018, according to the L.A. Homeless Services Authority.
A recent study predicts that the senior homeless population age 60 and older will grow more than 300% by 2030.
That trajectory is expected to continue outside of California too. Researchers predict the number of homeless seniors in New York City will more than double from 2,600 to 6,300 by 2030. In Boston, the figure is projected to jump from 570 to 1,560 over the next decade.
“We as a nation are growing older,” said HUD spokesman Brian Sullivan. “Almost everywhere you look, aging into the higher-risk categories is increasing, including homelessness.”
Homelessness at any age devastates a person’s health.
“It’s even worse for seniors,” said UC San Francisco physician Margot Kushel, who studies the effects of homelessness on the elderly. “They’re so much less resilient and many of these folks have significant chronic diseases.”
After a night of fitful sleep, Russell said he wakes up at 5 a.m. each day and walks blocks through some of downtown San Diego’s most squalid homeless areas — thick with the stench of human waste — to use the bathroom.
“The hardest thing is finding a place to go number two,” Russell said.
He showers and eats breakfast daily at the senior wellness center and then rides a bus for several hours to catch up on sleep.
On a recent cloudy morning, Russell said life wasn’t always so precarious. He said he used to own a restaurant in Chicago. He worked as a truck driver too. He came to San Diego more than two decades ago with $150,000 and a dream to buy a house and retire, but admits to “wasting” the money on swanky hotel stays.
“I didn’t put it in the bank, and I didn’t invest it at all,” Russell said. “I don’t know what made me think that that money would last forever.”
Russell explained his life unraveled when his second wife died in 2015. Shortly afterward, he said he got kicked out of Section 8 housing for subletting to a felon.
“I didn’t read the fine print,” he said.
Russell admitted he was so hungry a few years ago that he stole a rotisserie chicken from a San Diego grocery store and was arrested. He said he knows other homeless seniors who’ve killed themselves out of desperation. He called suicide “a coward’s way out.”
Russell said he also searches almost every day for housing but supply is short.
“The number one issue by far is affordable housing for seniors,” said Paul Downey, president and chief executive officer of the San Diego nonprofit Serving Seniors. “We’re opening a 62-unit affordable housing project this summer and the waiting list is approaching 400. The reality is most people are not going to get in.”
Downey said the increasing prevalence of seniors living on the streets is not “something we should be particularly proud of as a society.”
“I think some people see seniors as disposable,” Downey said. “They’re old. Why do we want to take care of them? Well, from a human standpoint, it’s the right thing to do.”
If morality alone isn’t persuasive, Downey said the cost of senior homelessness to taxpayers should be considered.
“Quite often, older adults, who are homeless, end up in the ER,” Downey said. “They could land in the ICU. It’s expensive not taking care of folks.”
“It will ramp up in the next several months,” said Lynn, the executive director at the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority.
Meanwhile, Russell has his own plan to get off San Diego’s streets. With the aid of a pro bono lawyer, he’s trying to convince the Teamsters union he’s entitled to a pension from his truck-driving days.
While he awaits that case’s outcome, Russell trudges along with prayer, hope, help and encouragement.
Tim Ruis, a worker at the Senior Wellness Center, handed Russell a bag of food and warm clothing, urging him not to give up.
“I can’t,” Russell replied. “My mother had 13 kids. Momma taught us to survive.”