Homelessness Archives – Varsity Branding

Tag: Homelessness

As we head into 2019, we look back on an exciting year for the Varsity blog! Here’s a countdown of our most popular posts for 2018. It’s a potpourri of topics, from serious to humorous to touching. One common thread: innovative ways of helping people age well, from a world-renowned village for people experiencing dementia to LEGOs.

  1. Older Adults Experiencing Homelessness Inspired by an experience our president Wayne Langley had passing an underpass in Los Angeles, this three-part series provides insights into how older individuals experiencing homelessness are treated. Read the first installment here.
  1. Difficulties in Diagnosing Parkinson’s Disease  In this guest post, Rebecca Evans of geriatric nursing.org discusses the second most common age-related disease after Alzheimer’s, including the lack of a precise screening test and why early diagnosis is so important. Read it here.
  1. Remembering Sal J. Molite, Jr.  Derek Dunham, vice president of client services at Varsity, pays his respects to Sal J. Molite, Jr., former president of Edenwald Communities in Towson, Maryland, who sadly passed away in January 2018. He was a true friend and colleague, who had a passion and dedication for the aging services. Read the post.
  1. American Hogeweyk — an Interview with UMC’s Larry Carlson Varsity spoke with Larry Carlson, President and CEO of United Methodist Communities, on his fascinating experience visiting Hogeweyk, the world-famous memory support community in The Netherlands. Read the post.
  1. Playing with LEGOs Could Help Older Adults Our most-read post of the year came from Robinson Smith, Varsity creative director and lover of all toys and games. Rob discusses Adult Fans of Legos (AFOLS), many of whom are older adults who use Legos to engage in a creative exercise for the mind. Read the post.

That’s our countdown of top posts for 2018! Stay tuned for more fresh perspectives in 2019, and please ">contact us  if there’s a topic or issue you’d like us to cover.


This article is the third in a three-part series, offering a fresh perspective on a topic that aging services providers often overlook older adults experiencing homelessness. For this series, we are interviewing Brother Damien Joseph of the Society of St. Francis. Damien Joseph works with people experiencing homelessness in California and offers some incredible insights.

You can read the first article here.

You can read the second article here.

In our last article, we discussed issues relating to the health of older adults experiencing homelessness. Are aged individuals more likely to seek assistance or less? Is there any discrimination in the services rendered? (Meaning that some shelters prefer to help young, homeless mothers — do they avoid the older population?)

I don’t know if there is a pattern in likelihood to seek assistance. I do know there is a sub-population of “chronically homeless” people, who by virtue of being defined as living on the street long term, are often older. This population is often less likely to seek assistance for a variety of reasons, including sheer weariness of trying to navigate a system of vastly inadequate resources.

Legal protections prevent most shelters from turning away an individual based on age. There are certainly specialized shelters for women with children and so on, but a shelter open to general populations may not consider age. What they MAY and DO consider is degree of medical need. If the shelter decides that a person potentially has more medical, mobility or assistance needs than it can accommodate, it does not have to accept that client. Obviously, older individuals are more likely to have these needs (especially if they’ve been experiencing homelessness) and, therefore, are more likely to be turned down. It’s legally not considered discrimination, but it has the same effect.

Just last week, I was with a group talking with the Episcopal chaplain at a large LA hospital. Looking at his current hospital census, he could quickly identify nine individuals who were admitted to the facility for a treatment lasting a couple of days but had now been there from three to nine months because their age and medical needs made it impossible to find shelter or program housing. This hospital, being a religious institution and committed to care over profit, will not put these individuals out on the street, but it has received no payment from Medicare or any insurer since the first few days of the hospitalization of these nine. Other hospitals would not be willing to take such a hit.

In San Francisco, a chronically homeless woman we knew well arrived at our door one chilly windy evening, barefoot, wearing only sweatpants and a thin T-shirt. She was heavily sedated by antipsychotics. The hospital where she had just been treated for pneumonia had discharged her with a taxi voucher bearing our address. Within half an hour, we had to call EMS again, and she was readmitted to another hospital for further care. If she had not knocked on our door, she might well have died that night.

Do you find that individual people are less likely to help an older person than a younger one?

I’m endlessly bothered by how much “compassion fatigue” I see in our cities. Most people walk past their unsheltered and needy neighbors as if they weren’t there. They don’t make eye contact, don’t speak to them and cross the street, if necessary. If it were possible to help less than “not at all,” then perhaps I could guess whether younger or older people were more likely to be ignored.

Are older homeless people more likely to have been homeless for a long period of their life and have just given up on finding a home? Or do they usually find themselves homeless later in life, through no fault of their own?

One of the most important truths of work with the community experiencing homelessness is that there is no typical story. There are as many stories and as many causes of homelessness as there are individuals experiencing it. It may have been common at one point for most older people living unsheltered to be among the “chronically homeless,” but I meet people in all varieties of situations.

Some have been chronically homeless. Many have been impacted by the ever-increasing cost of living and income gap. In cities like San Francisco and LA, where gentrification is rampant, many have fallen victim to developer greed, as building buyers find legal loopholes in rent control and force people out of places they’ve lived in for decades. Some have lost their retirement income to recent financial crises. Many were among the growing number of Americans whose full-time, honest work never left enough to save for retirement and now find that meager Social Security payments don’t go very far, especially in a city. Some have been made destitute by catastrophic medical problems, the onset of mental illness or addiction. Those who are new to being homeless as a senior are often especially at sea. Trying to navigate the system and compete for drastically insufficient resources is a huge and baffling adjustment. Many are just overwhelmed by it.

As we conclude our series of interviews with Damien Joseph, we must reflect on what we, as individuals and as organizations, are doing to help older adults that are at risk for homelessness. Each of our organizations can do something.

At Varsity, we’ve made a contribution to the Society of St. Francis to assist Damien Joseph with his ongoing ministry. If you’re interested in learning more about the work of the Society of St. Francis, you can visit the website at www.s-s-f.org.

If you’d like to make a donation to help the Society’s work, you can do so at http://www.s-s-f.org/give . There, you’ll find information about sending a check by mail or making an online donation.

This article is the second in a three-part series, offering a fresh perspective on a topic that aging services providers often overlook older adults experiencing homelessness. For this series, we are interviewing Brother Damien Joseph of the Society of St. Francis. Damien works with people experiencing homelessness in California and offers some incredible insights.  

You can read the first article here.

There will be one more post in this series, so make sure to stop back next week as we complete the interview.

Many people think of the homeless as younger, or even middle-aged. From your experience, how many people experiencing homelessness are age 55+? What struggles might they face that the younger homeless population doesn’t?

Your point is well made. In most reports I’ve looked at, “young” is defined as under 25 or thereabouts. HUD reports to congress seem to use this division. The category of homeless seniors is often left out, but the older homeless population is growing alarmingly fast.

In my personal contact with individuals living directly on the streets, I am alarmed both by how many very young homeless there are and by how many older homeless there are. Increasing income disparity, cultural changes, individual social and moral attitudes and a deeply flawed social safety net are among many factors contributing to the fact that no age group is safe from homelessness.

The unique struggles for older homeless individuals are many. Many do use an age well below 55 or 65 to define “older” among individuals who experience homelessness, because the toll it takes on a person physically and emotionally is devastating and certainly reduces life expectancy. I’m often surprised when a person who has been unhoused for an extended period tells me his or her age. That “little old homeless man” you see wandering around your town may turn out to be 50, not 70!

I know that, even in middle age, I find that a night away with a lousy mattress is taxing. Imagine, as a senior, how uncomfortable it is, sleeping on hard surfaces like the ground, concrete, cots or metal shelter bunks! Plus, many are sleeping exposed to the elements. Even in shelters, temperature controls can be unpredictable, and leaks and dampness abound.

The “street” population explodes in numbers every day around 7 or 8 a.m. That’s the time that many, if not most shelters require most of their residents to leave for the day, returning again in the evening. During those daylight hours, folks will have to deal with whatever temperature, weather and air quality issues there are. Escape from the sun, heat, rain and so on may be possible, or individuals may be continually “moved along” by business owners and police who don’t want to see them hanging around. Many cities have been actively removing public seating areas, or at least designing them to make lying down impossible. In some cities, including in San Francisco, it is illegal to sit down or set down your property on a public sidewalk. In order to comply with this law, an individual would literally have to remain on the move, carrying all of his or her possessions all day long. Businesses increasingly install what activists call “violent architecture” or “anti-homeless measures,” placing raised or jagged structures on flat surfaces to prevent them from being used to rest.

Finally, we must address the lack of access to appropriate health care and medical treatment. While this affects all people experiencing homelessness, the older population is clearly hit hardest. Most are uninsured or underinsured. State/federal program coverage generally gives them access to care, but certainly not the best available care. Elderly individuals without stable housing may find great difficulty in receiving any medical care requiring privacy, storing medications in need of refrigeration or other special conditions, keeping track of times for dosages and so on. Add to this continual exposure to infection, trash, body fluids, vehicle exhaust, smog and so on, and it’s remarkable that older people in this context can ever be healthy.

Clinics that specially serve this population exist, of course, but the one where I volunteered in San Francisco was continually swamped with demand, had few providers (with high turnover) and lacked access to easy referrals, specialty equipment and procedures that would be readily accessible in a private practice. I performed routine record reviews for patients due for follow-up but often found that they had no phone or address at which to be contacted, or that, in the frequent instability of temporary housing, they had moved, and their Medicare now required them to start over with a new clinic. Consistent care is rare. Many, even the very ill, never seek medical treatment until they end up in an ER. I met an elderly unsheltered man last year who asked for help filling his prescription for an infection on his leg. He pulled up his pant leg to reveal his entire lower leg blackened and necrotic. Had he been a properly insured, or able to pay consumer rate, he would have been instantly hospitalized for so serious an infection. But somewhere, some provider gave him a prescription for some cream and told him to figure out how to pay to fill it. This really drove home the issues with health care for me.

Health care is such an important example of what aging services providers offer. It’s hard to imagine how anyone could survive for long without appropriate care from trained professionals. Assuredly, this is a problem for our whole society one without an easy solution.

We hope you’ll join us next week when we conclude our interview with Damien Joseph and wrap up our discussion on the challenges faced by older adults experiencing homelessness.

This article is the first in a three-part series, offering a fresh perspective on a topic that aging services providers often overlook — older adults experiencing homelessness. Over the next few weeks, we will post sequels to this piece, so make sure to check back!

I had settled into the back seat of my Uber. My phone was in my hand, and I was scrolling through emails, trying to catch up after a flight to Los Angeles. As we drove under an underpass, bright colors caught my attention. I looked up to find a sea of brightly colored tents, many in tatters, formed by a small enclave of individuals experiencing homelessness. I was struck by how many of the people I saw were older adults. Later, during a meeting with our team at Varsity, I mentioned this. Our communications manager, Seth Anthony, said that he knew a man in California that was ministering to this population.

That man is Brother Damien Joseph, a friar in the Society of St. Francis, an Episcopalian-affiliated religious order based out of San Francisco. Three years ago, Damien Joseph gave up all of his worldly possessions and moved to California, where he found a calling working with people experiencing homelessness. Because of his vast firsthand experience with this population, we interviewed him, and he provided some fresh perspective on how older individuals experiencing homelessness are treated.

Can you give us a brief overview of those without shelter that you’ve interacted with?

There are multiple types of homelessness. While we automatically picture someone sleeping on the sidewalk, our homelessness crisis also includes people living in shelters (sometimes NOT a step up from the street), SRO (single-room occupancy) type shelters, transitional housing, unstable housing (“couch surfing,” for example) and so on.  It’s very important to recognize that the scope and complexity of the problem is far greater than just what we can all see driving around a big city.

Second, just as in any field, language is loaded. It’s worth noting that advocates are trying to steer conversation away from referring to “the homeless,” as it is seen as depersonalizing and as defining a person, and his or her worth, by his or her housing status. People working in the field prefer to use language like “people experiencing homelessness.”

Do you find it true that many older people who are experiencing homelessness didn’t have an opportunity to plan for retirement? Perhaps they don’t have any savings, or they lost the savings in some way? Do you find it common for folks to have not had any retirement plan and now find themselves in trouble?

I’m inclined to think more cases involve simply having no chance of preparing for retirement, rather than having simply failed to plan. Politicians want to find the “solution” to homelessness, but there is no one solution. Homelessness is a complex phenomenon perpetuated by elements out of our control and by elements we absolutely can control, both as individuals and as a society.

Addressing issues regarding seniors and homelessness, like any other problem, is best done by making changes BEFORE seniors become homeless. Increases in available resources, especially health care, is an essential, practical and right place to start. Additional shelter services are needed, but long-term supportive housing solutions are needed far more. What is needed most is also most difficult to get: a change in the hearts and minds of people.

When all of us believe that no one deserves to be left in the gutter, when we get it through our heads that no one “deserves” to be poor, when we realize how much of what we have is pure “dumb luck,” when we treat everyone with the dignity they deserve, then we’ll make some progress.

It’s all about people taking care of people.

I found that last quote resonate, as it’s something I hear from aging services executives all over the country: We take care of people. So, what are our non-profit aging services organizations doing to take care of those most at risk, such as those experiencing homelessness? 

We hope you’ll join us next week when we continue our interview with Damien Joseph and further discuss the challenges faced by those experiencing homelessness.


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