They’re homeless in their golden years

Service providers raise alarm over number of seniors living on the street

Fraser Holland

Social service groups and outreach workers have been noticing a “troubling” increase in the number of seniors living on the streets.

“This sudden increase is sad and troublesome and is an issue that is coming up at round table discussions across the province,” said Janet Burden, executive director of Stepping Stone Community Services.

With an aging population, the issue needs to be made a priority, she said.

“These people who end up homeless aren’t who we typically see. These can be men and women who owned homes, who were working members of society. There are heart-wrenching stories out there,” she said.

For Jim (not his real name), it was a undiagnosed stroke at the age of 55 that sent him spiralling from being a working man to surviving on the streets of Langley.

“I would sneak onto this property here in Langley and sleep in an abandoned shed. One night it was snowing, but I had cover and a sleeping bag,” said Jim, who has now found housing through help from the Langley outreach program.

Before his stroke, he was working in manufacturing company, working the drills in Langley, he said.

Living as a bachelor, he rented a penthouse apartment in Langley City. But the stroke was affecting his ability to work the drills.

He took a month off to find out what was going on with him medically and mentally, and when he returned to work he had been let go, he said.

“I couldn’t pay my high rent anymore, I ended up owing the landlord a lot of back rent and found myself on the streets with nothing.”

His experience with being homeless was the year before the Gateway of Hope opened.

He said he tried to find shelter in Surrey but they were full. He spent some time sleeping under the awnings along Langley City’s one-way street, a popular sleeping place for some of the homeless population.

“It’s no way to live, it’s awful,” he said. His days were filled with walking around as much as his mobility would allow.

“He also would go into places like the library to stay warm and find places to shower.

At one point he got a disability cheque so he had $200 in his pocket but no hotel would give him a room, he said.

“You need a credit card.” The stroke has impacted his memory and caused him to have back pain and one leg is numb. He uses a walker to get around.

Then he heard about Stepping Stone’s outreach program and decided to look into it. That’s where he met Emily Aldcroft, who worked with him to find housing.

She also helped him find a doctor, something that is difficult to acquire for anyone in Langley.

From there he was able to collect disability. He is now 61 and through help he has found a home at Rainbow Lodge, which offers low cost housing for seniors. It’s a happy ending, but a cautionary tale of what older people can run into, he said.

“Getting older doesn’t help in these matters,” he said.

Another opposite example of Jim’s situation is Thelma (not her real name), said Burden. She is in her 70s and is going to have to move from her family home to low-cost housing, like Rainbow Lodge, after a tragic, but common, turn of events.

Thelma’s husband was the breadwinner, who took care of all the bills and banking. He fell ill and had to be moved to a care facility. Most of his pension goes to pay for his care and that has left her having to figure out a whole new world of bills she is unable to pay in a home she owes money on. Without family support, Thelma feels very alone.

She is resistant to change, said Burden.

Langley outreach worker Fraser Holland, who helps Langley’s homeless with housing and finding social services and health supports, said that over the past 12 months he has been working with more and more of an aging population.

“Forty per cent of clients are over 50 and older,” said Holland.

More than 30 Langley residents who live on the streets are over the age of 60.

The oldest homeless person in Langley is around 83, he said.

The elderly man refuses to allow Holland to secure housing for him.

For those who are entrenched, many with addiction and mental health issues, it can be difficult to find them housing, Holland said.

“Substance abuse and living on the streets can be very harsh on the body over time,” said Holland.

“Many of those entrenched homeless who are older than 65 are losing mobility and are in and out of hospital, discharged back onto the streets.

“But they are very difficult to find housing for and often they are resistant to (change),” he said.

But he is also seeing new faces on the streets.

“It used to be that when an elderly person came to us, we would prioritize helping him or her because the situation was so unique. But now, it is common for us to see seniors, because of their particular vulnerable situation,” said Holland.

The Gateway of Hope homeless shelter has also seen an increase in the number of seniors looking for a bed and a warm meal.

Community meals offered by several churches in Langley are seeing more and more seniors at risk.

“As we age, our support network of friends and family shrinks as people pass on and the friends who are around are unable to help anymore because they are getting older, too,” Holland said.

For those on provincial disability funding, it changes over to federal payments once a person turns 65, he said.

But if people don’t know to apply for the federal funds — the cheques don’t arrive.

Finding housing for older people who have both physical and mental health issues is a real challenge.

“With age, we are opening up the onion to find the layers and it becomes more complicated,” said Holland.

“I often get people telling me, “I don’t want to live around people.”

But shared accommodations is all they can afford.”

He is dealing with elderly hoarders who need to move from their homes into care facilities but are resistant to going anywhere without all their stuff.

Mobility issues also become part of the equation.

Some can’t take the stairs where there isn’t an elevator. But a lot of older people don’t like to live on the first floor for safety reasons.

The provincial government is going to have to address specialized housing for seniors in these situations, he said.

Pride also keeps many from asking for help.

“Those people we aren’t reaching,” worries Holland. “Asking for help is embarrassing for some.”

People on the edge of poverty may choose not to eat that week in order to pay for their medications, Holland points out.

Seniors Services Society, based in New Westminster, has outreach workers who respond to more than 200 urgent requests for information relating to a senior at risk of becoming homeless. Of those 200, 20 are living on the streets, said SSS.

They have 20 rental units to help emergency cases.  If you are in need or know someone who is in need contact 604-520-6621 for outreach services.

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