Wave Staff Report
LOS ANGELES — A new report issued by the United Way of Greater Los Angeles details how officials could end homelessness for adults aged 55 or older within a matter of years.
According to the United Way, the city and county and the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority could use one-time funding from the American Rescue Plan and the California state budget to fund a housing allowance that would allow seniors and people with disabilities to afford Los Angeles rents, making possible the full implementation of the delayed Los Angeles County Older Adults Housing Pilot.
Adults 55 and older make up about one-fourth of the county’s homeless population, about 15,000 people.
The report, “The Older Adult Strategy, A Roadmap of Strategic System Investments to End Homelessness Among Older Adults in Los Angeles,” has been shared with all declared candidates for the 2022 Los Angeles mayor’s race.
United Way officials called solving the older adult homelessness problem a matter of life and death. County figures demonstrate that living on the streets shortens lifespans by an average of 20 years and older adults accounted for 73% of confirmed COVID-19 deaths among people experiencing homelessness countywide.
“This report combines the expertise of scholars, service providers, public officials and people who have experienced homelessness for themselves, and identifies steps we can take today to house thousands of people and prevent hundreds of unnecessary premature deaths,” said Elise Buik, president and CEO of United Way of Greater Los Angeles. “We have a one-time opportunity right now to align federal and state funds to fully implement a pilot that established unprecedented coordination across the county to bring older adults home.”
The report notes that African-American people are even more over-represented among older adults experiencing homelessness (39%) than they are in the general homeless population (33%), despite accounting for only 8% of the total county population. Racial inequity is one of the main causes, according to the report.
The poverty rate is 18.7% among Black seniors, compared to 6.9% for white seniors. Two-thirds of the older adult homeless population is male. Previously incarcerated Black older adults are more likely to experience higher rates of homelessness. The report highlights the need to deliver on criminal justice reform to support Black males through their transition out of incarceration with housing, intensive case management, and reintegration.
The report was influenced by a panel of people who have been homeless.
“Many older people face mobility issues, health issues, safety issues,” said Shawn Pleasants, who lived on the streets of Koreatown for 10 years. “In L.A., you’re not legally allowed to put up your tent until nine at night. I don’t have night vision so by putting my tents up early, I was breaking the law. But then the police can write you a citation that turns into a warrant.
“As an older adult, you’re forever questioning your own self-worth and wondering what it is you’ve done so wrong to put yourself in that situation?” Pleasants added. “It’s a very shameful place to find oneself and of feeling too much embarrassment or shame to reach out for help, because someone my age should have figured it out by now.
“I felt too little self-worth to ask anyone for help, because I wouldn’t dare want any of my family or friends to see me in the condition in which I was living.
Wallace Richardson became homeless at 57 after his mother died and he couldn’t pay the rent.
“I was rescued from the streets with supportive housing,” Richardson said. “I was able to deal with it physically, but I couldn’t deal with it mentally. I felt ashamed.”
The United Way report was funded as part of a grant by Cedars-Sinai. The Conrad N. Hilton Foundation funded the South L.A. and Southeast L.A. pilots. Funding from Kaiser Permanente will support forthcoming older-adult focused initiatives that align with a number of recommendations from the report.
“COVID-19 has significantly increased the need for permanent supportive housing for low-income individuals including older adults, and we look forward to this ongoing partnership with United Way of Greater Los Angeles,” said Julie Miller-Phipps, president of Kaiser Permanente Southern California and Hawaii Health Plan and Hospitals. “Together we will ensure we make the strides needed to support people experiencing homelessness, because without a safe, stable place to live, having good health is nearly impossible.”
According to the report, new federal funding for Medicaid services can support navigating people to housing, assisting them with move-in expenses, and helping them stabilize in housing. At the state level, California’s new CalAIM programs can be implemented to support a foundation of Medicaid to get people off the streets, assigning professional staff to specific individuals to help them get the health care and housing they need.
Expanded housing assistance can help low-income Californians afford market rents, including supporting shared living arrangements, while aggressive client advocacy can ensure better access to Social Security benefits.
“The federal pandemic aid and the surplus in California’s budget have created an historic opportunity to meet this challenge head on,” said Dennis Culhane, PhD, a professor of social policy at the University of Pennsylvania. “The resources are there, and the time to mobilize is now. We should start by laying the foundational groundwork of enhanced federal entitlements, and build it out year by year to achieve the scale necessary.”
Culhane was one of the architects of the Older Adults Housing Pilot framework to bring home 5,000 seniors experiencing homelessness over five years, which has yet to be fully implemented by either Los Angeles County or the city. Full implementation could improve coordination between local aging and homeless sectors to prioritize older adults for housing placements.
“It would be a failure to create just another set of boutique programs that serve a lucky few,” Culhane said. “The problem requires an urgent policy change that can have an impact at scale, and the United Way of Greater Los Angeles roadmap lays the path forward.”
“This report further illustrates that older adults have unique needs, but they are not a recognized subpopulation within our region’s system to address homelessness,” said Laura Trejo, executive director of the county’s Aging and Community Services Branch. “Older adults currently represent 25% of those who are experiencing homelessness, with rapid growth predicted in the next few years.
“Los Angeles must mobilize to ensure that the needs of older adults are addressed by existing services and funding streams,” Trejo added. “I commend the community stakeholders for their bold vision and strategic recommendations to combat homelessness among older adults.”
“People need to engage in a manner which respects people’s dignity, a manner which gives respect, and a manner which gives hope,” said the formerly homeless Pleasants. “This was a great start of many more conversations that need to take place. But our place at the table needs bigger chairs.”