While homelessness has not traditionally been thought of as a “senior issue,” older adults are not immune to the impacts of the homelessness crisis. In fact, the average age of the homeless population in King County is increasing. Among respondents to a 2016 survey of people experiencing homelessness, 22 percent were over age 50. And nearly a third of the clients in homeless shelters funded by United Way of King County are over age 55. Fortunately, senior centers and other older adult services providers have been collaborating on new approaches to address this challenge.
In recent years, recognition of the challenges of meeting the unique needs of older adults experiencing homelessness has grown, just as older adult homelessness has been on the rise. “Homeless service providers are reaching to meet this need but many are not resourced in a way to provide the medical and psychosocial needs of the aging population,” explains Anita Souza, a clinical assistant professor at the University of Washington School of Nursing. New and strengthened partnerships and effective collaborations are one potential solution.
In fact, King County’s senior centers have served homeless older adults for many years. For example, the Pike Market Senior Center has served both housed older adults and older adults experiencing homelessness in the heart of downtown Seattle since 1978. The center currently offers traditional senior center activities at no cost, as well as long-term individual case management to help seniors find housing and access vital resources.
Senior centers in suburban and rural locations have also been adjusting to meet the need. Jobyna Nickum, manager of the Enumclaw Senior Center, recently noted some of the additional challenges faced by rural centers, including “lack of shelters in small communities, rural seniors not being willing to go to urban shelters, and limited funding to offer assistance.” As a rural center, Enumclaw Senior Center works with each homeless older adult and helps any way they can. This can include providing mental or physical health services, extra socks and other clothing, and “shower coupons” that the center purchases from the local swimming pool so seniors to take a warm shower.
While these services have developed organically at individual senior centers, a new project involves centers joining forces to directly address this growing need together. Project SHARE—which stands for “Senior Homelessness Action, Resources, and Education”—is a countywide effort to explore and share senior center experiences. Currently, Pike Market Senior Center and Wallingford Community Senior Center are working together to determine what skills, policies, trainings, and best practices will help other centers to better serve seniors experiencing homelessness. Findings will be shared with all of King County’s senior centers.
“This is a great partnership,” says Pike Market Senior Center social worker Danielle Montrose. “We’ve got both perspectives covered. Pike Market has decades of experience with this population and Wallingford is beginning to see more and more homeless seniors. We’ll be able to get some really useful information and ideas out to our colleagues at the other senior centers.” Project SHARE is funded by a grant from United Way of King County as part of their Services for Vulnerable Older Adults Initiative.
This promising new collaboration supplements the work being done every day by the older adult services network to address the social and health needs of older adults—work that is crucial for older adults to remain stably housed. As other new approaches are developed and silos are broken down, senior centers and other service providers will continue to work together to prevent and end homelessness among older adults.
For more information about services, or to find out how you can help, contact your local senior center.
Contributor Jon Morrison Winters is the lead planner on transportation and housing issues for Aging and Disability Services, the Area Agency on Aging for Seattle-King County. He can be reached at at Jon.Winters@seattle.gov or 206-684-0654.