PHOENIX — Karla Finocchio’s slide into homelessness began when she split from her 18-year-old partner and temporarily moved in with a cousin.
The 55-year-old planned to use her $800-a-month disability check to get an apartment after back surgery. But she was soon sleeping in her old pickup protected by her Scrappy German Shepherd mix, unable to afford housing in Phoenix, where median monthly rents have soared 33% during the coronavirus pandemic to more than $1,220 for a room, according to ApartmentList.com.
“We’re seeing a huge boom in senior homelessness,” said Kendra Hendry, social worker at Arizona’s largest shelter, where seniors make up about 30% of those staying there. “These are not necessarily people who have mental health or addiction problems. These are people pushed into the streets by rising rents.”
Academics predict their numbers will nearly triple over the next decade, challenging policymakers from Los Angeles to New York to come up with new ideas for housing the latest baby boomers as they age, are more sick and less able to pay spiraling rents. Advocates say a lot more housing is needed, especially for people on very low incomes.
Navigating sidewalks in wheelchairs and walkers, aging homeless people are medically older than they are, with mobility, cognitive and chronic issues like diabetes. Many have contracted COVID-19 or have been unable to work due to pandemic restrictions.
Cardelia Corley, 65, found herself on the streets of Los Angeles County after the hours of her telemarketing job were cut.
“I always worked, I succeeded, I sent my child to college,” the single mother said. “And then all of a sudden things went downhill.”
Corley traveled all night on buses and took commuter trains to take cat naps.
“And then I would go to Union Station downtown and wash up in the bathroom,” Corley said. She recently moved into a small apartment in East Hollywood with the help of The People Concern, a non-profit organization in Los Angeles.
Dr Margot Kushel, a physician who directs the Center for Vulnerable Populations at the University of California, San Francisco, said her Oakland research into how homelessness affects health showed that nearly half of dozens of Thousands of homeless seniors in the United States are on the streets for the first time.
“We find that retirement is no longer the golden dream,” Kushel said. “Many working poor are destined to retire to the streets.”
This is especially true for young baby boomers, today in their late 50s to late 60s, who don’t have a pension or a 401(k) account. About half of women and men between the ages of 55 and 66 have no retirement savings, according to the census.
Born between 1946 and 1964, baby boomers today number more than 70 million, according to the census. With the oldest baby boomers in their mid-70s, all will reach 65 by 2030.
Older homeless people also tend to have smaller Social Security checks after years of illegal work.
Donald Whitehead Jr., executive director of the Washington-based advocacy group National Coalition for the Homeless, said black, Latino and Indigenous people who came of age in the 1980s amid recession and unemployment rates are disproportionately represented among the homeless.
Many of them nearing retirement never got well-paying jobs and failed to buy homes due to discriminatory housing practices.
“A lot of us didn’t put money into retirement programs, thinking Social Security was going to take care of us,” said Rudy Soliz, 63, director of operations at the Justa Center, which offers meals, showers, mail depot and other services for homeless seniors in Phoenix.
The average monthly Social Security retirement payment in December was $1,658. Many older homeless people have much smaller checks because they have worked fewer years or earned less than others.
People 65 and older with limited resources who have not worked enough to collect retirement benefits may be eligible for Supplemental Security Income of $841 per month.
Nestor Castro, 67, was luckier than many who lose their permanent homes.
Castro was in his late 50s and living in New York when his mother died and he was hospitalized with bleeding ulcers, losing their apartment. He first stayed with his sister in Boston, then for more than three years at a YMCA in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Just before last Christmas, Castro secured a permanent apartment subsidized by Hearth Inc., a Boston nonprofit dedicated to ending homelessness among seniors. Residents pay 30% of their income to stay in one of Hearth’s 228 accommodations.
Castro pays with part of his Social Security check and a part-time job. He also volunteers at a food pantry and a non-profit organization that helps people find housing.
“Housing is a big problem here because they are building luxury apartments that no one can afford,” he said. “A place down the street costs $3,068 a month for a studio.”
Janie Har in Marin County, California, and Christopher Weber in Los Angeles contributed to this report.