Carl Russell, 71, pictured in downtown San Diego near the Gary and Mary West Senior Well Center, where he spends much of his time. He is one of a growing number of homeless seniors in California. (Sean Havey for California Dream)
A Senior on the Streets, with Little Chance of a Home
In parts of California, seniors are the fastest growing part of the homeless population.
“We saw an increase from just over 4,000 individuals 62 and older to just over 4,800,” said Peter Lynn, executive director of the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority. “They have vulnerabilities. They have complex medical situations. Everyone is looking at this with real concern. This is not a population we want to have unsheltered.”
San Diego, San Francisco and Sacramento counties have also seen increases in their homeless populations of people 55 and older in recent years.
L.A. a Hotspot for Senior Homelessness
In Los Angeles County, seniors are the fastest growing part of the homeless population. Senior homelessness, age 62 and up, increased 22% in 2018, according to the L.A. Homeless Services Authority.
A recent study predicts that the senior homeless population age 60 and older will grow more than 300% by 2030.
Age 50 to 54 Age 55 to 60 Age 60 to 64 Age 65 to 69 Age 70 to 74 Age 75 and older
Senior homelessness in L.A. County, 2008-2030*
Source: Actionable Intelligence for Social Policy at University of Pennsylvania
Note: Data includes both sheltered and unsheltered homeless persons. *Actual data from 2008-15; 2016-2030 projected.
That trajectory is expected to continue outside of California too. Researchers predict the number of homeless seniors in New York City will more than double from 2,600 to 6,300 by 2030. In Boston, the figure is projected to jump from 570 to 1,560 over the next decade.
“We as a nation are growing older,” said HUD spokesman Brian Sullivan. “Almost everywhere you look, aging into the higher-risk categories is increasing, including homelessness.”
Homelessness at any age devastates a person’s health.
“It’s even worse for seniors,” said UC San Francisco physician Margot Kushel, who studies the effects of homelessness on the elderly. “They’re so much less resilient and many of these folks have significant chronic diseases.”
Carl Russell, sitting next to Oscar Walker, a homeless friend from the Gary and Mary West Senior Well Center in downtown San Diego where he sleeps sitting up and often fears being attacked while asleep. (Sean Havey for California Dream)
Kushel said older people also age more rapidly on the streets, as much as 20 years past their chronological age.
“You can’t get good sleep. You don’t have a good diet. You can’t get to the doctor’s office,” Kushel said. “I want people to think about an 80-year-old they know and imagine that person sleeping outside in the rain or walking miles to find a bathroom or shower. Try to imagine how vulnerable they are to attacks from other people and how frightened they are. The suffering is unspeakable.”
After a night of fitful sleep, Russell said he wakes up at 5 a.m. each day and walks blocks through some of downtown San Diego’s most squalid homeless areas — thick with the stench of human waste — to use the bathroom.
“The hardest thing is finding a place to go number two,” Russell said.
He showers and eats breakfast daily at the senior wellness center and then rides a bus for several hours to catch up on sleep.
On a recent cloudy morning, Russell said life wasn’t always so precarious. He said he used to own a restaurant in Chicago. He worked as a truck driver too. He came to San Diego more than two decades ago with $150,000 and a dream to buy a house and retire, but admits to “wasting” the money on swanky hotel stays.
“I didn’t put it in the bank, and I didn’t invest it at all,” Russell said. “I don’t know what made me think that that money would last forever.”
Russell explained his life unraveled when his second wife died in 2015. Shortly afterward, he said he got kicked out of Section 8 housing for subletting to a felon.
“I didn’t read the fine print,” he said.
Russell admitted he was so hungry a few years ago that he stole a rotisserie chicken from a San Diego grocery store and was arrested. He said he knows other homeless seniors who’ve killed themselves out of desperation. He called suicide “a coward’s way out.”
The physical toll of homelessness is devastating at any age. According to UC San Francisco physician Margot Kushel, who studies homelessness' effects on the elderly, “It’s even worse for seniors” like 71-year-old Carl Russell. (Sean Havey for California Dream)
But he acknowledged feeling dispirited by his circumstances and the realities of age. He said he wants a job to supplement the $800 a month he receives from Social Security.
“Who’s going to hire you when you’re in your 70s?,” Russell asked. “And what are you qualified to do when you got bad health? You can’t breathe. You can’t see. You can’t walk.”
Russell said he also searches almost every day for housing but supply is short.
“The number one issue by far is affordable housing for seniors,” said Paul Downey, president and chief executive officer of the San Diego nonprofit Serving Seniors. “We’re opening a 62-unit affordable housing project this summer and the waiting list is approaching 400. The reality is most people are not going to get in.”
Downey said the increasing prevalence of seniors living on the streets is not “something we should be particularly proud of as a society.”
“I think some people see seniors as disposable,” Downey said. “They’re old. Why do we want to take care of them? Well, from a human standpoint, it’s the right thing to do.”
If morality alone isn’t persuasive, Downey said the cost of senior homelessness to taxpayers should be considered.
“Quite often, older adults, who are homeless, end up in the ER,” Downey said. “They could land in the ICU. It’s expensive not taking care of folks.”
An ashtray attached to the side of the Gary and Mary West Senior Well Center where homeless senior, Carl Russell, showers and eats breaskfast everyday. (Sean Havey for California Dream)
Some local governments are taking action.
In Los Angeles County, where researchers predict the senior homelessness population could reach nearly 14,000 by 2030, officials are rolling out a set of solutions to get seniors into housing. They include rent subsidies, roommate arrangements and getting more elderly people on affordable housing waiting lists.
“It will ramp up in the next several months,” said Lynn, the executive director at the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority.
Meanwhile, Russell has his own plan to get off San Diego’s streets. With the aid of a pro bono lawyer, he’s trying to convince the Teamsters union he’s entitled to a pension from his truck-driving days.
While he awaits that case’s outcome, Russell trudges along with prayer, hope, help and encouragement.
Tim Ruis, a worker at the Senior Wellness Center, handed Russell a bag of food and warm clothing, urging him not to give up.
“I can’t,” Russell replied. “My mother had 13 kids. Momma taught us to survive.”