It’s been a year since the Fall River Catholic Diocese took over the homeless shelter on Winter Street, but shelter coordinator Karen Ready can’t get over the number of older people who are ending up on the mattresses at St. Joseph’s House.
“I’m a little bit alarmed at how many elders are coming to shelter and what we can do,” Ready said. “It’s a very bitter pill for me to swallow.”
The graying of the homeless population is cause for concern across the state but is a particular issue on Cape Cod, where about 30 percent of the population is 65 and over, compared to 16 percent in Massachusetts as a whole, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
The problem is only going to get worse as Baby Boomers continue to age, said Ready, who also oversees four other shelters run by the diocese in Southeastern Massachusetts.
A survey of the homeless in shelter between November 2016 and June 2017 showed that St. Joseph’s House, which used to be known as the NOAH shelter, housed 89 people aged 55 and older in that time period, accounting for 34 percent of the shelter’s population, Ready said.
Of that number, 34 individuals were age 62 and older, she said.
Over the same 12-month period in New Bedford, only 15 percent of shelter residents, or 42 individuals, were 55 or over, Ready said.
“It’s really sad,” said Angela Webb-Brazell, a direct care provider at St. Joseph’s House. “We see a lot of elderly come in and out with canes and walkers. There are a lot of veterans.”
Elizabeth Albert, the executive director of human services for Barnstable County, said that an annual “point-in-time” count of homeless that this year took place Jan. 24 also showed the toll homelessness is taking on older people.
Forty-two percent of the unsheltered — meaning people living in emergency shelters, transitional housing, on the street and in cars — were between the ages of 50 and 64, and 5 percent were over the age of 65, Albert said.
The numbers on the Cape are so high that Ready said she and shelter manager Marvin Domino took a gerontology course at Cape Cod Community College to better understand the needs of aging shelter residents.
Among other things, Ready said she got the diocese to invest in two Kia minivans to transport people to doctor’s appointments.
The vans were delivered right before Christmas last year and have been “a godsend,” especially for older people who have lots of medical appointments, Ready said.
A nurse now dispenses medications daily from a room where residents’ prescriptions are stored securely and where blood can be drawn.
The shelter’s day center opens at 8:30 a.m. and includes field trips to a butterfly center and art classes.
“I’m not looking to turn the shelter into a nursing home,” Ready said, but added that she was not going to turn elderly people out into the street in the rain and freezing cold.
Older people have special considerations, Ready said. Due to balance and strength issues, many older people need to take a lower bunk in the bunk room.
Some individuals are incontinent; some show signs of early dementia, Ready said.
“Their dietary needs are different,” Ready said. “If they want to lie down and take a nap at 2 o’clock, they should be allowed to.” But there’s not enough staffing to supervise naps at this time, she said.
The hard mattresses were what got to Maggie O’Brien, 60, of Hyannis, when police drove her to the 50-bed shelter after she and her adult daughter were evicted from a rental house.
“I had nowhere to go,” said O’Brien, who said she has spinal stenosis, fibromyalgia and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or COPD.
Although the mattresses at St. Joseph’s House are new and specially made to be bedbug-proof, O’Brien said they are not comfortable for senior citizens.
O’Brien said she’d sleep in bed for one-and-a-half hours then get up and fall asleep for the rest of the night in a chair in the TV room.
Deliverance came when she qualified for an apartment at Village Green in Barnstable.
“I was so shocked a miracle actually happened to me,” O’Brien said. She said she paid $200 to apply for the apartment and didn’t want to lose it.
Other seniors wait for publicly funded senior housing to become available, but there’s a wait list, Ready said.
“We could always use more senior housing,” said Paula Schnepp, executive director of the Sandwich Housing Authority and a newly elected Barnstable Town councilor. “We need more housing, period, and across all age groups. The volume of need is greater than the resources available.”
Compounding the issue of elder and other subsidized housing is the fragmented application process, Schnepp said.
Twelve of 15 towns on the Cape have housing authorities with public senior housing, and people desiring housing have to fill out applications with each authority to be considered for its housing programs.
The system is tough enough for younger people to navigate, much less older people who may lack access to transportation, said Schnepp, who is also part of the Cape and Islands Regional Network to Prevent Homelessness.
“It makes a burdensome system even more so,” Schnepp said.
The state currently is working on a system to streamline the application and waitlist process so applicants only have to enter one door, or online portal, to apply for housing administered by housing authorities, Schnepp said.
In Boston last year, the city partnered with the state Executive Office of Elderly Affairs on a one-day “housing surge” designed to link chronically homeless older people with housing resources.
In October, Cape officials helped organize a symposium in Wareham on the issue of homelessness among the elderly that included state Executive Office of Elder Affairs Secretary Alice Bonner.
“We’ve made the commissioner of elder affairs aware” of what’s happening on the Cape, Ready said. “We’re looking to problem solve around the issue.”
Older people lose their homes when they become widowed, divorced, the victim of a reverse mortgage gone bad or the victims of financial fraud by relatives, including drug-addicted children or grandchildren, Ready said.
Sometimes living on a fixed income isn’t enough to cover the cost of housing on the Cape, Ready said.
Loss of a job, foreclosure and bankruptcy also play a role, Albert said.
“More senior citizens are being forced out of housing,” Domino said. He said even when adult children want to help, they are often unable to financially provide for their parents because they are also struggling to make ends meet.
Among the elderly homeless, financial issues and lack of housing play a much larger role than substance abuse or mental illness, Ready said.
“People are paying $900 for a room and a hot plate in a not-so-safe place,” Ready said. But off-Cape, studio and one-bedroom apartments can be found for $550 even without a subsidy, she said.
Lack of housing can lead to emotional and mental health issues for homeless elderly people who don’t know where they can lay their heads, Ready said.
“They’re so depressed. They can’t see any way out of it,” Ready said.