FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE – TUESDAY MARCH 1, 2022
“THIS DOESN’T HAVE TO HAPPEN”: UNITED WAY OF GREATER LOS ANGELES UNVEILS STRATEGY TO END OLDER ADULT HOMELESSNESS AND SAVE THOUSANDS OF LIVES
Aligning new and existing resources and committing to available programs can permanently end homelessness for age 55+ adults in LA County — nearly one quarter of the people experiencing homelessness at last count — housing thousands and preventing hundreds of unnecessary premature deaths
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LOS ANGELES, CA — Older adult homelessness is both urgent and solvable — and it’s 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.
A new report issued by United Way of Greater Los Angeles details how, by recommitting to available programs with new state and federal money, L.A. could end homelessness for adults aged 55 or older — who make up one quarter of Los Angeles County’s homeless population, around 15,000 people — within a matter of years. The report has been shared with all declared candidates for the 2022 Los Angeles mayor’s race.
The most critical action identified by the report is for the City, County, and LAHSA to use unprecedented 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 on SSI to afford Los Angeles rents, making possible the full implementation of the delayed Los Angeles County Older Adults Housing Pilot.
“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 & 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 Black and 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 population in L.A. County. Racial inequity is one of the main causes: 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 with lived experience of homelessness, whose perspective added valuable depth and reality checks. “Many older people face mobility issues, health issues, safety issues,” said Shawn Pleasants, who lived on the streets of Koreatown for 10 years. “In LA, 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? 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,” said Pleasants.
“I was rescued from the streets with supportive housing,” said Wallace Richardson, who became homeless at 57 after his mother died, and he couldn’t pay the rent. “I was able to deal with it physically, but I couldn’t deal with it mentally. I felt ashamed.”
The Older Adult Strategy, A Roadmap of Strategic System Investments to End Homelessness Among Older Adults in Los Angeles 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.
“Cedars-Sinai has long cared for older adults by investing in partnerships to provide for those most underserved,” said Jonathan Schreiber, Vice President of Community Engagement, Cedars-Sinai. “By providing the core initial funding to United Way of Greater Los Angeles to develop this strategic roadmap and collaboration, we strengthen our shared commitment to end homelessness among older adults.”
“Kaiser Permanente is committed to the health and well-being of Southern California’s most vulnerable residents, knowing their quality-of-life depends on the ability to access high quality care and services in the community,” said Julie Miller-Phipps, President of Kaiser Permanente Southern California and Hawaii Health Plan and Hospitals. “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. 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.”
Additionally, 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 SSI income benefits.
“For those 62 and up, there’s a rise in homelessness because they can’t hardly live off of the SSI. $974 a month,” said Richardson. “There’s nobody who can find a place in California for that now.”
“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, 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 City governments. 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,” said Culhane. “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 Dr. Laura Trejo, Executive Director of LA 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. I commend the community stakeholders for their bold vision and strategic recommendations to combat homelessness among older adults.”
The report describes a number of other pilot programs that, scaled up, could help end older adult homelessness quickly. In southeast Los Angeles city Bellflower, a pilot has allowed nonprofit Kingdom Causes to use flexible funds to help older adults transition smoothly from interim to permanent housing by paying for wellness checks, move-in costs, accessibility modifications and other expenses that could derail efforts to permanently house someone.
“Sometimes we’re just one thing away from everything in our world turning upside down,” said Ashley McKay, Director of Housing Stability, Kingdom Causes Bellflower. “The flexible funding is a game changer. One of our clients went from the street to Project Room Key, but didn’t have the funds to move into permanent supportive housing. Because we’re such a small organization, we could cut checks really quickly and she was able to move in that weekend.”
“We are in the midst of a crisis, with more and more older adults caught in the vise between their low, fixed income and rapidly rising rent. They are one unexpected bill away from losing their home, or are already homeless,” said Patti Prunhuber, Senior Staff Attorney, Housing, Justice In Aging. By working together, we can end the travesty of older adults, disproportionately older Black, and Latinx seniors, losing their housing and being forced to live on the streets.”
“That’s why I want to give back, if I can just help one person not go through what I went through,” said Richardson. “For the rest of the way, I dedicate my life to helping end homelessness.”
“People need to engage in a manner which respects people’s dignity, a manner which gives respect, and a manner which gives hope,” said Pleasants. “This was a great start of many more conversations that need to take place. But our place at the table needs bigger chairs.”
United Way of Greater Los Angeles is a nonprofit organization fighting to end poverty by preparing students for high school graduation, college, and the workforce; housing our homeless neighbors; and guiding hard-working families towards economic mobility. United Way identifies the root causes of poverty and works strategically to solve them by building alliances across all sectors, funding targeted programs and advocating for change.