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How an aging homeless population impacts the fight to end homelessness

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

The country's homeless population is aging. In the 1990s, the average age of someone living on the street was around 30. Today it's 50. That brings new challenges. And to talk us through some of them, Molly Harbarger is with us from Seattle. She's the editor of Project Homeless with The Seattle Times. Good to have you here.

MOLLY HARBARGER: Of course. Thank you for having me.

SHAPIRO: Why is the homeless population aging so quickly?

HARBARGER: So it's a combination of two things. One is that we have a growing homeless population, which means that there are more people who are aging while living on the street. But we also have a lot more of an influx of older people who are becoming homeless later in life.

SHAPIRO: Is there a particular reason somebody might become homeless later in life now, whereas they would have been less likely to a few decades ago? Is it about the social safety net, the cost of living, all of that?

HARBARGER: It's all of that. Yeah, we have a confluence of things. Over 30% of baby boomers are retiring with no retirement savings. We've also lived through a couple recessions at this point, and every time we have one of these rises in cost of living, that ripples on for a lot longer. And so our Social Security payments have not kept pace with all of that upheaval. It hasn't kept pace with inflation. And so as more people retire with less savings, they are more dependent on those Social Security payments that often don't pay rent in a lot of major cities anymore.

SHAPIRO: Older people have more frequent medical incidents, regardless of their living circumstances. How does homelessness exacerbate those conditions?

HARBARGER: Your immune system tends to reflect about 20 to 30 years older. Even if you're in a shelter, you're often in a space with a lot of other people sharing and breathing the same air, which we know, since COVID, can be deadly. You also have less access to hygiene resources, even washing your hands. Homeless people have a really high risk of diseases that don't really come up for housed people, like shigella. And so all of these things compound and can really take both short-term and long-term tolls on your health.

SHAPIRO: Are homeless services, shelters and other organizations equipped to deal with an older population?

HARBARGER: For the most part, no, and that's not because they don't want to or they're not trying to. But most of our shelters are set up to serve the most amount of people possible, and that tends to mean that a lot of shelters, you wait in line, you get a mat, and you lay on the ground. And in the morning, you get up off the ground, and you go out, and you spend the rest of the day outside or in a library or wherever you can find a warm, dry place to be. And that's not conducive for older people's bodies. There's also not a lot of medical services in shelters, and so there's just not a lot of places that can offer the amount of physical amenities that makes a place conducive to someone who's older, has medical issues, even just back pain, weak knees, that kind of thing.

SHAPIRO: Are there solutions that have been effective at helping older homeless people specifically?

HARBARGER: Yeah, we have a veterans homeless voucher system that has been shown to be highly effective. And while not all veterans are older, they often have similar complex needs that a lot of our older people have. And we don't have a lot of federal investment in homelessness services specifically. But if we see a big influx of money put towards getting homeless people into housing, and then when you have those wraparound services like the VA provides in terms of medical, case management, social services, mental health, that kind of thing, you can be really successful at getting people off the streets quickly and keeping them in their housing long term.

SHAPIRO: That's Molly Harbarger, editor of Project Homeless with The Seattle Times. Thank you for talking with us.

HARBARGER: Of course. Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.
Kathryn Fox