Seniors the 'new face of homelessness’ in Canada

[REUTERS/Carlo Allegri]

By June Chua

The number of seniors who are homeless in Canada is rising dramatically, according to new research.

“They are the new face of homelessness,” said researcher Victoria Burns, who did her PhD on aging and homelessness at McGill University. Burns is talking about people 50 and over — many who have become homeless for the first time.

Burns participated in a larger Canada-wide study that has put together new research on the issue of late life homelessness.

She refers to a one-night homeless count in March 2015 in Montreal which helped researchers examine how many were chronically homeless or were part of the “invisible” homeless population (people who lived in substandard housing or had been evicted due to other circumstances).

“[The count found out] that those 50-plus accounted for 41 per cent of homeless residents,” Burns told Yahoo Canada News. “That means that age group quadrupled over a 20-year period in Montreal.”

The rise in homeless seniors is borne out across the country, according to Amanda Grenier, director of the Gilbrea Centre for Studies in Aging at Hamilton’s McMaster University. She is the lead investigator in a massive study of late life homelessness, which began in 2012 — a study that Burns helped out with.

“It’s a trend because there are, overall, more older people in our society,” Grenier told Yahoo Canada News. “But also, we have older people who fall into it due to circumstances, such as having a precarious job, or they simply can’t pay for the rising cost of their housing or sickness.”

Grenier said the surge in seniors being homeless is common across the country.

In Toronto, homelessness among those 50-plus went from five per cent in 2009 to 10 per cent in 2013, according to the latest statistics the researchers collected.  

The Greater Vancouver Shelter Strategy has found that those 55 and older comprised 11 per cent of people in the city’s emergency shelters in 2013 and estimates that seniors could make up 23 per cent of the shelter population this year.

Gap in services

“The problem is we have division of services where we have services for seniors and then separate emergency shelter services focused on younger populations,” Grenier said. “There is a gap for older people who find themselves without housing suddenly.”

Nathan Vedoya, the manager of shelters for the Hope Mission in Edmonton, says his organization is seeing an older population as well.

“We do have a steady flow of seniors coming in and if we aren’t able to care for them, we re-direct them to a hospital if it’s a health issue or other agencies who work closely with seniors,” Vedoya told Yahoo Canada News.

“We also have a large number of people in their 40s and early 50s so we are trying hard to assist them so they don’t end up chronically homeless as they age.”

Many who are suddenly homeless late in life, according to Vedoya, experience something “episodic,” such as a medical condition, or they are laid off or have a divorce triggering a downward spiral.

“Several years ago, I had a client whose wife had passed away, he also had some medical injury, his business turned sour and he didn’t have the right insurance for that and he was deep in debt. When his medical prescriptions ran dry, he became addicted to crystal meth and alcohol,” Vedoya said.

“[He’s now about 65 years old] and he’s chronically homeless. We do what we can for him but there is deep emotional and physical pain there.”

Skyrocketing housing costs

In Montreal, Burns points out that the cost of housing is skyrocketing. The average amount of social assistance that most seniors in Quebec get is about $630 a month, “that’s barely enough for rent here,” she said.

“There is a lack of good quality social housing. The average wait in Montreal is five to seven years. When you’re old, you really need the stability of a home.”

Grenier says Canada needs to think about “the risks that lead people to homelessness.”

“In our study, we found that people only have enough assets to last them two months. So if you lose your job or have to care for a spouse, you could end up in debt and without housing.”

As with Burns, Grenier also suggested policies in which governments tackle the topic of long-term solutions for housing and support for older people and not a system of shelters that are barely able to care for them.

“Older people have mobility issues,” Burns said. “A lot of shelters have bunk beds. And they often require their clients to be out of the shelter during the day. You can’t be outside all day, walking or hanging out, if you’re over 60.”

Also, many shelters have policies where people are only allowed to stay up to six weeks so people end up hopping from place to place.

“They are set up so people don’t get too comfortable. They get displaced from shelter to shelter,” said Burns, who is now doing post-doctoral studies with the Institut national de la recherche scientifique focusing on the rehousing of homeless seniors.  

“So that makes them lose hope and motivation.”

Adapting to new clientele

At the Hope Mission, Vedoya says the shelters are adjusting to their aged clients.

“We have a dorm with 10 beds dedicated to people 55 and older. We also have a medical dorm that can take in up to 25 seniors,” he said.

“Typically, our dorms are full and usually we only allow stays up to 90 days but we are now extending that to six months now.”

The Mission also has a medical centre, which is fully staffed during the week with a psychiatrist on site as well as a visiting podiatrist.

Vedoya said his organization is having to “redefine our dorms and rewrite policies” to adapt to the changing clientele that’s appearing at its doorstep.

Grenier does note that there is more recognition of the growing problem of homelessness amongst seniors.

“There is inequality here and we need to plan for it,” she said.

Vedoya says he did have another man, about aged 60, who was an oil worker from Fort McMurray, Alta., — laid off and with an injury which made it hard for him to return to the physical work of the oilpatch.

“We worked with him over six months. He kept insisting that he would get back to his old work,” Vedoya said. “ Eventually, we got him to a program where he could get basic income and perhaps train for different work.”

Grenier says the issue is a tough one to get people to rally behind simply because “no one ever thinks their grandparents will be homeless.”

To that end, Burns reflects that we are all getting old, as it were: “You know we have to stop seeing homeless people as ‘the other’ because we should think that ‘Hey that could happen to me.’”