SAN FRANCISCO (KCBS RADIO) – When Dr. Margot Kushel, a professor of medicine and director of the Center for Vulnerable Populations and Benioff Homelessness and Housing Initiative at UCSF, set out with her colleagues to study homelessness, they made an interesting discovery.
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“We found that, of those who were 50 and older and homeless, 44% had never been homeless, not even for one day before the age of 50,” she said on the latest episode of “As Prescribed” with KCBS Radio’s Alice Wertz.
Those were results from a study of 350 homeless residents over age 50 in Oakland, Calif. Other research shows that homelessness is on the rise among the baby boomer population. These older homeless people tend to have health problems more commonly found in people who are in their 70s or 80s.
“This has been a trend that started in the early 2000s and has just been accelerating,” said Kushel of the growing number of homeless people age 50 and older. “We did a study that we published in 2006 that showed that in San Francisco in the early 1990s, only 11% of adults experiencing homelessness were 50 and above.”
More recent research shows the percentage is up to 48%.
Kushel said that people who experience homelessness starting at a younger age typically have very traumatic life stories and have dealt with substance abuse issues. People who first become homeless after age 50 are typically part of what Kushel described as the “working poor.”
This demographic is made up of people who generally work their entire lives, and often more than one job. Those jobs often don’t pay well and are physically demanding, without job protections or benefits such as a pension.
“They really were hanging on every month, scraping by, barely able to make the rent,” said Kushel. “And sometime after the age of 50, something happened. And what was really interesting about these folks, as they could kind of pinpoint the moment when things fell apart.”
Breaking points typically included setbacks such as the loss of a job, or the death of a partner or parent. Due to structural oppression and alienation from opportunities needed to create intergenerational wealth, homelessness often impacts Black people, indigenous people and Latinx people more than other populations.
“I think there is this myth out there that everyone is homeless because they no longer have friends or family,” said Kushel. “And if we could just, you know, connect them, it would all be fine. And what really aligns with the true story is here that homelessness is mostly happening in communities of color,” where even the people who could help also tend to be struggling financially.
At the same time, income inequality is becoming an even greater problem, making today’s working poor even more vulnerable to homelessness.
“Anything that we can do to increase incomes of extremely low income households, whether that is through reforms of pensions, reforms of benefits for people with disabilities, increasing the minimum wage, increasing access to job pathways, that’s going to help a lot,” said Kushel of her prescription to help heal the current homelessness issue.