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This story was produced with support from the Economic Hardship Reporting Project.
The doors of the Mission Neighborhood Health Center in San Francisco don’t open until 7 am, but on the Saturday morning I was there, a dozen or so people were already lined up by 5:30. The group included a middle-aged white man who had lost his job managing a high-end restaurant and a black man wearing a crisp security guard blazer because he had to be at work by noon. Each was there hoping for a bed for the night. The city assigns most slots in its homeless shelters on a first-come, first-served basis by computer. The people had shown up here so early because they know through experience that every last bed will be claimed by 7:10 am.
A 56-year-old woman named Marcia, who has been homeless for six years, was one of the unlucky ones. She arrived while it was still dark, but not early enough to secure a bed. Because it was the weekend, her bad luck also meant two days of killing time. “Saturdays and Sundays are hell for those of us who are homeless, because most walk-in centers are closed,” she told me. “I especially hate Sundays. That’s when I ride BART.” For Marcia, riding the Bay Area’s commuter rail system is a relatively cheap way to get some rest during the day. She often falls asleep on the train, and it’s not uncommon for her to wake up and find herself an hour or more outside San Francisco.
When Marcia has no bed, she is left with precious few options, none of them good. She can ride the city bus, hoping for a kind driver who won’t boot her into the street. That’s what a 55-year-old woman I met named Dorothy used to do until she deemed that strategy too risky. “If you don’t get a nice driver, you have to get off every hour or so and wait for another one,” Dorothy said. “If you have to wait for a bus at three in the morning, you’ll be waiting a long time. Anything can happen.”
And then there were the plastic chairs at the Oshun Drop-In Center, a public facility run by the San Francisco Department of Public Health. Marcia usually chose the plastic chairs at Oshun. It was hardly ideal, but at least she felt safe there and could try to get some sleep. “You can’t lie down on the floor,” she said. “You try, but you’re not allowed.” After a night spent contorting herself into an uncomfortable chair, her back would be killing her. “But I try not to think about it,” she said. “After a while, you get used to it.”
It used to be that homeless women over 50 were blessedly rare. Marie O’Connor began helping seniors find housing in San Francisco’s Mission District in 1992. “To see homeless elders back then was shocking,” said O’Connor, a volunteer coordinator with the St. Anthony Foundation, a nonprofit providing the homeless with housing, meals and medical care. “Today, it’s the norm.”
How widespread is the problem? Every homeless advocate and shelter monitor I spoke with told me the older homeless population in San Francisco is exploding. The problem is bound to get worse as the price of housing reaches new heights. San Francisco is the most expensive city in the country for renters, according to a March 2012 report by the National Low Income Housing Coalition. Small studio apartments are going for as much as $2,000 a month, which requires a salary of at least $70,000 a year.
And it’s not just San Francisco. The cost of living in most major metropolitan areas is on the rise, while wages are down. In states like California, ongoing budget cuts to services like the Supplemental Security Income, In-Home Supportive Services and adult day healthcare centers are making it harder for elderly people to pay for housing. According to the latest numbers from Hearth, an organization working to end elder homelessness, the country had 40,750 homeless people 62 or older in 2012. As the nation’s population ages, that number is expected to more than double by 2050.