January 7, 2013

Baby boomers with no place to call home

Shelters are seeing a surge in older men with age-related illnesses, a trend that could have implications for how we shape public policy.

By Tom Bell tbell@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

Charles Jones sleeps every night in the Oxford Street Shelter’s “medical dorm,” so called because the room is reserved for up to 16 men in poor health.

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Charles Jones, 55, struggles to sling his bags up onto his shoulder while walking on Alder Street Friday morning. Jones suffers from bulging discs in his back, and says that being homeless – and having to carry his belongings – exacerbates his injury.

Gabe Souza/Staff Photographer

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He’s 55 years old, the average age of the men in the room.  They’re allowed inside the shelter a half-hour early, so they can avoid the long lines in sub-freezing temperatures, and they sleep on cots rather than the standard floor mats.

Jones, who first became homeless five years ago after a bank foreclosed on his Belfast farm, suffers from degenerative disc disease and mental health problems that emerged after he lost the farm. He says he’s seeing more and more people in the shelter who, like him, also struggle with health issues.

“It’s the older folks,” he says. “The older generation is growing.”

The demographics at the shelter – increasing numbers of older men with physical and mental health problems – are indicative of a national trend that has implications for public policy, according to Dennis Culhane, a professor of social welfare policy at the University of Pennsylvania who has done extensive research on the demographics of the nation’s homeless population.

The chronic homeless are aging, he says, but the data does not exactly mirror the overall aging of the nation. Rather, there is one group – men born between 1954 and 1966  – who are nearly twice as likely to stay in a homeless shelter than any other age group.

This group was first identified in the 1990 Census, when they were around age 30. They appeared again in the 2000 Census, when they were around age 40, and again in 2010, when they were around age 50. In each decade, that generation of men had the highest risk of experiencing homelessness.

The shelter staff has noticed the trend as well. While the shelter has always seen a significant number of older male clients over the years, a much larger percentage now are also experiencing acute physical and psychological problems, problems that often come with age, says shelter director Josh O’Brien.

In 2002, men between the ages of 47 and 59 stayed at the shelter an average of 31 nights. In 2012, men in the same age group stayed an average of 53 nights.

They are staying longer because the economy has worsened, budgets for programs aimed at helping the poor have been cut, and many of the men have debilitating health problems that are exacerbated by life on the street, O’Brien says.

“It’s a deadly combination for the men we serve,” he says.

Some of the men who come to the shelter are being discharged directly from hospitals. In the five-month period between June 1 and Nov. 30, 2012, a total of 142 people at the Oxford Street Shelter reported having been discharged from hospitals, including Maine Medical Center and Mercy Hospital in Portland, and Spring Harbor, a psychiatric hospital in Westbrook.

The shelter’s medical dorm didn’t exist a year and a half ago, but is now full. To keep up with demand, O’Brien last week went to Scarborough to buy five more cots at Cabela’s, a hunting supply store. The shelter now has 39 cots set aside for people who are too sick to sleep on floor mats.

Culhane says many of the chronic homeless are young baby boomers who came of age during the back-to-back recessions in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Older baby boomers had taken the best, highest-paying jobs, and housing supply was tightening, he says.

Unable to find work, some of the homeless got involved in the growing underground drug market, in particular crack cocaine. Many ended up in prison, where they became estranged from their families, he says. Others would spend the rest of their lives cycling between unemployment and occasional stints in menial, low-paying jobs.

(Continued on page 2)

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Additional Photos

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Here is a look at how Charles Jones, 55, spent part of his time last week: Above, he walks to the Preble Street Resource Center on Friday after spending the night at the Oxford Street Shelter. ...

Gabe Souza/Staff Photographer

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... At the Portland Public Library, he fills out applications for housing. ...

Gabe Souza/Staff Photographer

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Gabe Souza/Staff Photographer

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... The Belfast native at the Oxford Street shelter on Wednesday.

John Ewing/Staff Photographer

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Charles Jones visits the Portland Housing Authority Friday morning to fill out forms for assistance. Experts say no community has yet figured out a working strategy for dealing with the demographic wave represented by baby-boomer generation men like Jones.

Gabe Souza/Staff Photographer

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Charles Jones, 55, zips up his bags at the corner of Chestnut Street and Cumberland Avenue Friday morning on his way to the Portland Public Library.

Gabe Souza/Staff Photographer

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The 55-year-old homeless man checks for traffic before crossing a street on his way to the Portland Housing Authority.

Gabe Souza/Staff Photographer

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