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More People Over 55 Are Becoming Homeless — One Phoenix Organization Is Trying To Help
Every year, more older adults are becoming homeless. And it's not just an Arizona problem. According to the Department of Housing and Urban Development, in 2016, more than 21 percent of homeless people over age 50 were living in shelters, that figure doesn’t count those living on America’s streets.
Justa Center in downtown Phoenix is one of the only adult day resource centers in the country. They’re busier than ever serving homeless seniors 55 and older.
Talk to some of the staff at Justa Center, it doesn’t take much to become homeless — even a bad divorce.
“I lived in a million-dollar house and drove luxury cars. And it was all gone," said Denise Holm, 57. “The house was sold out from under me, the car that was supposed to be purchased was returned, so I was out on the street."
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For 58-year-old Rudy Soliz, the end of his marriage and poor health led to him living on the streets.
“I tried fighting for my disability — my Social Security disability — for some reasons they decided to fight me," he said. " It took me long. I lost my condo, my truck, all my belongings, I lost them.”
Both Soliz and Holm now work at Justa Center. They’ve since rebuilt their lives, in part, because of the support they received here. Anywhere between 130 and 180 seniors, depending on the season, walk through the door every single day.
"It can be very confusing and disorienting to be homeless, and to be able to come to a place and feel safe and be able to sit down and to feel clean, to have clean underwear, to have clean socks, to take a shower or to eat a meal," said Barbara Lewkowitz, the Justa Center’s executive director.
These are the kind of entry level services that homeless seniors get here, even before staff work with them to figure out what benefits, like Social Security or veteran's benefits, they might be entitled to. Still, just because a person gets Social Security doesn’t mean it’s enough. And that’s part of the problem: many seniors are falling through the cracks, said Lewkowitz.
"If you're only earning $600 a month in Social Security you can't get an apartment. I mean, really you know a studio could be $550. So what are you going to do? How are you going to pay for everything else? How you're going to pay for groceries?”
Even those who saved and did everything they were supposed to, Lewkowitz said many were hit hard by the Great Recession. And then there are other stories of family problems.
"A lot of what we see, frankly, is that some of the generations are taking their parents' checks and then kicking the parents out or not taking care of the parents," said Lewkowitz.
Another big issue is housing. It’s not affordable.
Micole Felder helped start Justa center 11 years ago. He was just 26 at the time.
“For those who are 62 and older, they can qualify for HUD and stuff like that. For those in between 55 and 61 it's more difficult," said Felder. "You know, it's a lot difficult to try and find them housing and employment. So we just do what we can do.”
Which is pretty much everything — from furnishing a person’s new home or bringing them a bag of food at the end of the month, when money is really tight, to providing showers and laundry service, even mail.
“And if you think about that it's like wait a minute, if you're going to get a check, if you're going to get your EFT card, if you're going to get your benefits, you have to have an address," Felder said.
Justa Center is one of the only places in the Valley and the country, for that matter, that offer these kinds of services. Lewkowitz said they don’t rely on government funds. They operate on donations.
"Coffee, cups, garbage bags, it sounds simple but those are things that are used everyday at Justa Center, laundry soap, that’s an important part of what we do," said Lewkowitz.
Lewkowitz said there are two types of people the Justa Center serves: the chronically homeless, like a woman staff nicknamed named Q, and those who are in emergency shelters. And Lewkowitz said many more seniors, ones that had never experienced homelessness before, are accessing services at Justa Center.
“Those are the ones that I really feel for, the new ones, because they have no understanding of the streets and what it's like out here on the streets and they get they get gamed on by people," said Daniel Borquez.
Borquez is 67. He spent most of his life in and out of prison. He said the world was different when he was released in 2006.
"And everything changed. The ones technology, computers all that stuff that stuff was all new to me. It was real scary. I wanted to hurry up and go back, to tell you the truth," said Borquez.
Like Holm and Soliz, Borquez started volunteering at Justa Center, he was eventually offered a job.
It’s almost lunchtime and the main room is filled with seniors carrying backpacks stuffed with personal belongings. A tiny woman with long, matted gray hair walked in for the first time. She's using a walker and tells Lewkowitz that she’s been sleeping near 24th and Van Buren streets, several miles from Justa Center. Another man, in a wheelchair, was dropped off after being released from a skilled nursing facility.
“That happens, and that why I’m saying is that its part of what are we going to think about and what are we going to do with the culture as everyone ages in the United States," said Lewkowitz. "Not everyone is going to be able to stay in their own house, not everyone is going to be able to age in place. And so those those are the people that Justa Center is going to have to help."
“Business is booming for us, and it's unfortunate. We started to see more and more people every day, so it’s getting bad for 55 and older," Felder said.
For that segment of the homeless population, not having a home is one part of the problem. Factor in other vulnerabilities including physical disabilities, serious mental illness and chronic and expensive conditions like dementia, and the situation sounds increasingly grim.
Reach the Justa Center at justacenter.org or at 602-254-6524.
EDITOR'S NOTE: This story has been updated to correct a quote attribution and to clarify the number of homeless people over age 50 living in shelters.