Community in Crisis

San Francisco’s Aging Homeless Population: Here’s what it’s like being a senior on the street

SAN FRANCISCO (KRON) — Sixty-one-year-old Melvin Priestly panhandles  holding a cardboard sign asking those passing by to smile and have a nice day, but he has little to make him smile these days.

He’s been on the street for about a year and a half. 

The San Francisco native says he spends his nights in a tent in the Tenderloin and keeps his meager possessions strapped to his wheelchair since he’s chased away every morning.

This is the second time he’s been homeless.

He says he’s been down on his luck since being disabled in an accident several years ago.

“I have a bad leg,” he said. “I was hit by a car years ago, it’s really bothering me really bad.”

 This time around he says it’s hard sleeping on the street at this age.

 “But what can I do, I don’t have a choice right now, just deal with it, you know,” Priestly said. 

Priestly is part of a growing demographic living on the street, according to the UCSF Benioff Homeless and Housing Initiative.

Their study shows that in the early 1990s only 11 percent of single homeless adults in San Francisco were aged 50 and older.

By 2003 that number swelled to 37 percent.

Now they estimate that 50 percent of the homeless population here is 50 or older.

“In fact the largest increases are the people over 65,” said Dr. Margot Kushel, UCSF Benioff Homeless and Housing Initiative.  “That number is expected to triple by the year 2030.”

This aging population of people living on the streets is going to continue to swell, in part because an entire generation is more apt to find themselves out on the streets.

“[The] group of people born between 1955 and 1965 who’ve actually been at high risk of homelessness their whole lives,” she said. “This is a group of people who enter the labor market during the recession, this is a group of people who are in the second half of the baby boom, many of the jobs are taken by people in the first half of the baby boom.”

 Kushel says the demographic entered the housing market at a time when theire was a big change in federal housing policies, including a reduction in federal support for affordable housing. 

“This is the generation many of whom went to Vietnam or who were caught up in the Vietnam era and really deeply affected, not only by the crack, cocaine epidemic, but also by the change in justice policy,” she said. 

Kushel said the generation got caught up in a lot of bad luck and in someways, haven’t been able to recover. 

In UCSF’s hope home study, they recruited  a group of 350 homeless people aged 50 and older and have been tracking them since 2013.

“We found the people who have been homeless early in their lives and remain homeless were people who faced many, many challenges throughout their lives,” Kushel said. “These are people whose childhoods were absolutely horrific, who develop substance abuse problems and mental health problems pretty early in their lives.”

But nearly half had never been homeless until after the age of 50.

They were generally people who had worked often more than one job at a time, but that was low-wage work, physically demanding work and they had worked your whole lives,” Kushel said. 

Kushel said sometime after these people turned 50, they would lose their jobs, become too ill to do physically demanding work or their job would be outsourced. 

Those circumstances would force those individuals into homelessness. 

And while 50 might not seem old enough to qualify someone as a senior citizen, the director of the UCSF Homeless Initiative says physically living on street is hard on the human body.

“Sometimes what I like to say is 50 is the new 75,” she said. 

Kushel says even though certain health problems or mobility challenges don’t usually occur until later in life, the aging population often experiences these things much earlier. 

She says this aging population is going to make tackling the homeless crisis even more challenging and more expensive because of the services they need.

“[What] we found is that even though this population is in their 50s or 60s right now, predominantly a huge percentage of them are extremely high risk for requiring nursing home care,” Kushel said.

For Melvin, he’s working with a homeless outreach team trying to get into a navigation center — and hopefully soon, because he doesn’t want to still be outside for another rainy winter at his age.  

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