Volume: 39 Issue 5
LISW-CP, Esq., Director, One80 Place Legal Services
The PDF for the issue in which this article appears can be found here.
There is no question that with the aging of the “baby boomers,” (those born between 1946 and 1964), the country is getting older. What is much less acknowledged is that the problem of senior homelessness is worsening as well. The Homeless Research Institute estimates that the population of seniors who are homeless could increase from 44,000 in 2010 to 95,000 by the year 2050.1
Many older people who are homeless have been on the streets for almost a generation—particularly those with disabilities, mental health and/or behavioral health issues. They have settled into patterns that they seem unable or unwilling to break. These seniors are wary of the crowded conditions at shelters, so they are more likely to stay on the street relying on public places or makeshift arrangements for sleeping.
Other seniors who are newer to the streets became home¬less after losing their jobs in the latest economic downturn or having lost their housing because they were on a fixed income and could no longer afford the rent due to medical bills or rising housing costs as a consequence of gentrification.
No matter how a senior becomes homeless, the average life span for a person living on the street is estimated to be 64 years. According to the National Coalition for the Homeless, a 50- year-old living on the street possesses the physical traits of a 70-year-old.2 In addition, senior citizens who are homeless are easy prey for criminals.
They are more prone to victimization and more likely to be ignored by law enforcement.
In addition to financial difficulties and the scarcity of afford¬able housing, there are a variety of other reasons why seniors become homeless. They include:
- Loss of a life partner
- Chronic alcohol or drug abuse
- Psychiatric illness (primarily depression)
- Alzheimer’s disease and/or dementia
- Isolation with a lack of family support
- Reduced social welfare protections
- Disability or physical health conditions such as chronic pulmonary disease, hypertension, urinary incontinence, tuberculosis, and other chronic physical ailments
In regard to physical health, senior citizens who are homeless have health issues that are hard to treat while living on the street. They often do not seek treatment for their health conditions for a variety of reasons. They are afraid of what will happen to them if they seek treatment. They do not have the resources to pay for treatment. They do not trust health care or social service professionals. They are not aware that they are eligible for benefits such as Medicaid and Medicare.
For senior citizens who are homeless or at risk of becoming homeless, the key to stable housing and an end to their homelessness is finding the resources to either get housed and off the street or finding the resources to prevent eviction. There has been a good deal written about the supportive services that senior citizens who are homeless can utilize to address their homelessness. These services include:
- Education & training
- Financial counseling
- Rapid rehousing
- Permanent supportive housing
- Mental health and substance abuse treatment
Remarkably, a supportive service that is often overlooked is legal services, when in fact legal services can and do play a significant role in ending homelessness for senior citizens. One example of that assistance is in eviction prevention. It has been reported that tenants with legal representation at a court hearing are less likely to be evicted than unrepresented tenants despite the merits of their respective cases. Here are two examples from the case files of South Carolina’s Homeless Justice Project, where — were it not for legal representation — these older adults would have been evicted and would have become homeless.
Ann (60 years old)
Ann had multiple health problems, and, although she did not like living in public housing, she had no other option. She requested legal assistance in her ongoing dispute with the Housing Authority. During a torrential rainstorm her apartment flooded. She had to buy new furniture and as a result fell behind in her rent. A pro bono lawyer represented Ann at an informal hearing with the Housing Authority. There were clearly some discrepancies be¬tween what Ann thought she owed and what the Hous¬ing Authority claimed that she owed. The matter was not resolved.
Two months later, the Housing Authority filed to evict Ann. Ann’s lawyer requested a hearing on the matter. At the hearing, her lawyer was able to show that the Housing Authority used two ledgers that listed varying amounts of what Ann allegedly owed. The Magistrate ruled that Ann only owed $472 in back rent, not the $1115 the Housing Authority claimed she owed.
The Housing Authority retained outside counsel to appeal the Magistrate’s decision. Ann was again represented and the Magistrate ruled that her first ruling stood. The outside counsel representing the Housing Authority then appealed the matter to the state Court of Common Pleas, requesting that the Magistrate’s decision be reversed. At the hearing Ann was again represented. The presiding judge dismissed the Housing Authority’s motion and Ann remained housed.
Oscar (92 years old)
Oscar was a World War II veteran who was, to put it nicely, set in his ways, and at 92 had every right to be. He requested legal services because he had been served with an eviction for nonpayment of rent. He maintained that he had paid his rent and did not understand why he was evicted. At the hearing it was determined that a veterans’ assistance agency had agreed to pay the outstanding rent, but the agency failed to pay as promised. Oscar’s lawyer contacted the agency and they agreed to pay the back rent.
It was also determined that Oscar had trouble paying his rent because he was not receiving his full pension from a former employer due to unnecessary deductions for medical insurance coverage. Since Oscar was a veteran and received all his medical services at the local VA, he did not need that coverage. His lawyer contacted his former employer and Oscar’s monthly pension was increased by $200.
Three months later Oscar received another eviction notice. This time he was being evicted for allegedly being a public health hazard as a result of having too much “stuff” in his apartment, as well as nonpayment of back rent. At the eviction hearing, Oscar was given 30 days to clean his apartment. With the help of seven law students, Oscar’s lawyer was able to satisfactorily clean out the apartment to the extent that, for the first time in months, Oscar was able to sleep in his bed instead of sleeping in a chair.
At the subsequent hearing, the Judge deemed that Oscar’s apartment was not a public health hazard and agreed with Oscar’s lawyer that all late fees and court costs that Oscar allegedly owed should be thrown out reducing the back rent owed from $513.29 to $49.63, which the veterans’ assistance agency gladly paid. The agency also agreed to work with the lawyer and Oscar to create a budget for him to prevent further eviction hearings.
These examples demonstrate that legal representation for tenants not only prevents eviction, but holistic legal services provided to senior citizens can serve to address other areas as such as:
- Finding emergency financial assistance to prevent an eviction
- Mediating disputes between tenant and landlord
- Providing assistance to secure other income to prevent future eviction actions
- Providing budget or money management support.
While these services are often provided by public interest law organizations, they do not have to be the only source of representation. They can also be provided by pro bono lawyers who agree to limit their services to just the eviction matter or, as some communities have done, through Housing Courts where legal and supportive services are made available on designated days of the week when eviction hearings are being held.
1. William Sermons and Meghan Henry, Homeless Research Institute, The Demographic of Homelessness Series: The Rising Elderly Population, (April 2010). The Homelessness Research Institute (HRI), is the research and education arm of the National Alliance to End Homelessness, https://endhomelessness.org/ending-homelessness/what-we-do/research/
2. National Coalition for the Homeless, Homelessness Among Elderly Persons, http://www.nationalhomeless.org/factsheets/Elderly.pdf (September 2009).
Eviction prevention is just one of many areas where legal services can work to prevent homelessness among senior citizens. Assisting senior citizens in navigating the complex application process for Social Security benefits and veterans’ benefits, helping them obtain identification, representing them in guardian/ conservatorship matters, and placing them in safe and appropriate housing are also areas where lawyers can play an important role, as this case, which is also from the Homeless Justice Project, demonstrates:
Diane (74 years old)
Diane was the picture of an aging Southern belle. She always dressed as if she was going to a social event. Unfortunately, in addition to suffering the onset of dementia, she was an alcoholic. Her alcoholism caused her to be evicted from her senior living apartment and to end up in a homeless shelter. Although the staff at the homeless shelter did their best to monitor Diane, she would slip away to the local grocery store where she would open bottles of wine and drink them while sitting in the aisle. Police were called, but Diane was never arrested, just returned to the homeless shelter.
Because there were concerns about her safety it was decided that it would be in Diane’s best interest to have a guardian and a conservator. These individuals would make decisions on where she should reside and how her funds were to be spent. Three volunteer lawyers became involved: one to represent the petitioner, one to represent Diane, and one to act as guardian ad litem. At a hearing, the Probate Court found that Diane was unable to act in her own best interest and appointed a guardian and conservator for her.
After the hearing, the lawyers continued to collaborate to locate an appropriate setting for Diane outside the homeless shelter. They were able to find placement for her in a residential care facility that specialized in treating seniors with dementia. Again, but for the legal representation provided to Diane, her living situation may have ended in a much different manner.
While living on the street is risky for anyone, the risks significantly increase for older adults. The provision of legal services for senior citizens who are homeless can play an important role in ending their homelessness and providing them with a safe and secure place to live out their lives. Preventing homelessness among senior citizens should be a priority.
About the Author
Jeff Yungman is a social worker, attorney and former police officer who directs the Homeless Justice Project at One80 Place in Charleston, South Carolina. You can read more about him in the August 2017 ABA Journal article, “From Cop to Counsel: Former police officer now serves the homeless as a social worker and attorney,” http://www.abajournal.com/magazine/article/yungman_homeless_justice_project_charleston.