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Homeless Elders

by Charles Bush

Mendocino County hired nationally known homelessness expert Dr. Robert Morbut to study that population in Mendocino County, and to make recommendations about how to move forward in dealing with our “homeless problem.” Redwood Coast Senior Center has seen an increase in the number of aging homeless here on the coast, utilizing our services. Although we do not provide specific assistance in finding low cost housing, we nevertheless make every effort to advise and assist elders in managing their lives by utilizing local services available. We are participating with county efforts to understand and respond more effectively to homelessness. The recently published report provided some interesting and somewhat surprising information about the scope and texture of homelessness in the county and on the coast. Here are a few highlights.

  1. There are fewer homeless folks on the coast than one might expect. Somewhere in the neighborhood of about 100 people, 60 males and 40 females. Most of them are middle aged. There are a few families or single parents with children.
  2. Our homeless population is pretty home-grown, with nearly two thirds having either grown up, or having followed their families to reside on the north coast before becoming homeless. The rest became unsheltered in some other community before moving here. While we certainly have some proportion of north-south transient travelers, there is very little movement between towns inside the county, and back and forth between inland and coast.
  3. Half of our coastal homeless became unemployed before they lost their housing, and currently 80% of the local homeless are unemployed. That same percentage falls into the category of one to four years of homelessness. This is important because the longer homelessness lasts, the less likely it is for successful reintegration, suggesting the likelihood of growing problems in the future.
  4. The data included in the consulting report did not identify the number of elders experiencing homelessness either countywide or on the coast. Neither did the study identify the number of people living in their vehicles on the coast, although it does differentiate between “van dwellers” who tend to be transient north-south travelers, and “car dwellers” who tend to be more local, with some roots in the community.
  5. Also not included in the report was the number of homeless receiving services at Redwood Coast Senior Center. We were able to identify eight elderly individuals living in vehicles and another half-dozen seniors on the street, or temporarily in shelters, (more than 10% of the total) who eat at the senior center and participate in programs or use other facilities there. 

The report shared some recommendations for improving the focus and results of the time, money and human effort being spent dealing with homelessness here in Mendocino County. Here are a few highlights of what it suggests.

  1. Instead of responding primarily locally and tactically to problems as they arise around homelessness, the county could develop an overall strategic response to the whole problem, and integrate its specific responses within that strategy. This could avoid duplicating services, get better results relative to the causes versus the symptoms of homelessness, and help the whole community work together more effectively.
  2. The many agencies addressing various parts of the problem could benefit by shared data tracking of homeless individuals over time, and an integrated case approach focused on re-integrating individuals into the house community.
  3. Because there's simply not enough housing available, it is crucial that every bed and every facility be maximally utilized by more integrated management and placement at the same time efforts are made to increase low-cost housing stock and rent subsidies.
  4. Resolving homelessness issues depends on the effective accessibility to mental health services, educational support, and employment development. These approaches are essential in moving toward dealing with causes, rather than treating symptoms relative to homelessness.
  5. Unless the community is willing to significantly increase expenditures and facilities, it may be more effective to focus on “home grown homelessness” and act in ways that encourage other individuals to return to the communities where they became homeless in order to seek support and services. This would free up more time, energy and effort to actually re-house and re-integrate the community's own members. Homelessness among elders presents a somewhat unique situation, and calls for a somewhat different set of responses. We will be working in the coming months to assist in the development of a strategic plan, integrating with all the other agencies and organizations on the coast, and identifying the unique needs of homeless elders. That topic will be the focus of the next “Senior Perspectives” article.

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