SOS — Save Our Seniors!

My Plea for Rose to Avoid Homelessness

Reno, NV is a hotbed of homelessness for seniors. Photo Diane Nilan

Not far from the shadow of Mar-a-Lago, in tony Palm Beach County, is a woman I’ll call Rose. She’s in her 70s, has known stability, purposefulness, and a paycheck. She’s now staring down what any of us in this age bracket would consider our worst nightmare, homelessness. She reached out to me with a desperate plea for help. I’m reaching out to you.

When you see the grizzled guy or gal on a park bench, belongings stacked nearby, it’s easy to figure they had it coming. When they babble incoherently, smell like a 6-week-old hamburger, and make you feel uncomfortable as you pass by at what you hope is a safe distance, you can chalk them up to another failed life.

Plenty of seniors without homes in Phoenix, AZ Photo Diane Nilan

Not so fast, bub.

Homelessness isn’t a career plan. It’s not the consequence of a raft of bad choices. Without going all social-work-y on you, it’s complicated. Sure, personal mistakes may be part of the equation for all of us, but the flimsy sustenance network on which we all rely — affordable housing, physical/mental health care services, social security supports for our old age (or period of disability), food security, assisted living (if necessary) — that’s what brings most people to the park bench.

Annoying as it may be to those comfortably ensconced and financially set for the next 200 years, some of us didn’t have the opportunity to reap what we didn’t sow. Those who lack (or lost) the retirement savings necessary to survive these last years, well, now what? No do-overs.

Such comfort. No place to rest, or go to the bathroom. Photo Diane Nilan

The reality is Rose, and millions more like us, are not sitting pretty, approaching our golden years with glee. In Rose’s case, she pulls in less than $800 a month Social Security. She’s now living with someone, an arrangement scheduled to end as Joe Biden raises his right hand to take his oath as president.

While some of us are hopeful that this regime will prove better than these past four years of federal dysfunction and mayhem, chances are pretty high that it won’t be instant improvement, at least in time for Rose and others in her predicament.

The reality is, most people know nothing or little about homelessness. While I’m somewhat of a family/youth homelessness expert, I’ve more than dabbled in adult homelessness, running busy emergency shelters for 15 years. I made this 5-minute film of seniors sharing their perspective of homelessness. I’ve also spent much of my waking hours advocating for solutions to homelessness for families and adults. That involves research, reading, listening, observing, and then taking the accumulated knowledge to our elected officials. It’s an uphill climb, to say the least.

People waiting in line for a meal outside a shelter.
People waiting in line for a meal outside a shelter.
Waiting in line is the way of survival for people without homes. Photo Diane Nilan

Cluelessness and Deception

Two articles jumped out at me as I recently perused my morning dose of reality — media stories about homelessness.

Hooey, Part 1

One click-baity headline promised a breakdown of states with the most homeless people. I looked, having traveled through every state except Alaska for my nonprofit HEAR US Inc. But first I noticed the mark of distinction when it comes to credibility, or not. Citing HUD’s statistics is a dead giveaway that the author knows nothing about homelessness.

“To identify the states with the largest homeless populations, researchers at Porch analyzed data from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s 2019 Annual Homeless Assessment Report to Congress. Using these statistics, they calculated the total homeless population per 10,000 residents.” Porch, 12/9/20

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, HUD, bears a deceptive name and produces an equally deceptive annual report on how many homeless persons we have in the U.S, a number hovering about 500,000 from last January’s count. Their annual point-in-time count, scheduled for the last week of January, gets billed as the homeless census, when it is far from that. Without dredging up failed methodology, let me just say they don’t count 80% of the families or others without homes because HUD has a nifty little definition that keeps them from qualifying as homeless. Rose wouldn’t count.

So, when this “news” story promised the lowdown on the down-and-out, I knew it was a bunch of hooey. And it is. As we know, that kind of hooey gets mixed in with whatever beverage know-nothings are drinking and it seems to quench their thirst for injustice.

Hooey, Part 2

The next story promised to list, state-by-state, resources for those who find themselves without a place to live. Like Rose.

“Though there are ample phone numbers to call, from local 211 hotlines to national crisis centers, many homeless people experience challenges accessing resources, transitioning into programs — some of which have stringent protocols to maintain alcohol and drug abstinence — or participate in other treatment programs.” (Stacker, 1/10/21)

I’m not sure who charters these tours to nowhere, but they sure get their money’s worth. Not willing to spend time on all 50 states, I looked at three most familiar to me: Illinois, Kansas, and North Carolina. I can assure you that a person desperate for a place to stay in any of those states best bring a pillow and sleeping bag. Despite best efforts from gallant people in my sample selection of states, resources are, um, slim to nonexistent. Especially during these COVID-19 times.

This might be considered a “posh” shelter. Photo Diane Nilan

Which brings me back to Rose. She doesn’t want/need a homeless shelter. She’s been in one before and it was hell. She now needs assisted living. She’s on Medicaid, which narrows her possibilities horrifically. She wants to stay somewhere near her (previous) home territory — in the shadow of the post-presidential digs. She wants what all of us want — to live out our last years in safety and basic comfort.

Let’s say Rose was your beloved sister. Maybe you weren’t that close, but still, you want the best for her. Maybe you don’t have the wherewithal to take her in or support her in her old age, which she wouldn’t expect. What would you like to have happen to her?

See, that’s where government comes in. For those who lack the resources to care for themselves, private establishments are not going to scoop her up and benevolently care for her. Government, which gets a bad name, sometimes deservedly so, needs to be part of the solution.

Which brings us back to Rose. Her clock is ticking. To a suggested solution, leave it in the comments. I’ll happily be the go-between. I’d want someone to do the same for me. That’s what our society is built on — mutual care and compassion.

To order Photo design by Chad Bruce

My new book, Dismazed and Driven — My Look at Family Homelessness in America is now available.

I promise a lively, informative read. Here’s a review from the Los Angeles Review of Books .

Here’s a spread of photos and stories from my book.

Here’s an interview on NBC Chicago.

Founder/pres. HEAR US Inc., gives voice & visibility to homeless families & youth, ran shelters, advocate, filmmaker, author, 15 yrs. on US backroads.

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