The moral test of any society is how it treats its most vulnerable members, including those who are old and living in the shadows.
NOT SINCE THE 1918 Spanish flu have we faced such drastic nationwide measures to prevent the spread of a deadly disease pandemic. Communities across America are shut down and individuals are instructed to stay at home and distance from those outside their households. For older adults, who are at greater risk, particularly those with chronic conditions, physical isolation means protection. It can be a matter of life and death.
But what happens when that protection is out of reach?
This is the reality for older Americans who are homeless. Without privacy, access to soap, hand sanitizer, and other tools for hygiene, and the ability to safely store food and other necessities, the dangers of daily survival are daunting. Many public restrooms are now closed. Food banks and other charitable services are strained. Testing and care may be inaccessible and the prospect of rapid disease spread is high.
More people than ever are homeless in their "golden years." More than 10,000 Americans turn 65 each day, and an increasing number of them are aging on the streets. People age 50 and over now comprise approximately one-third of homeless Americans. With higher rates of age-related disease and an increased mortality rate, this group already lacks access to quality care and suffers from disparities and negative biases in the medical ecosystem. In Los Angeles, where the number of homeless older adults aged 62 and over grew by more than 20% in 2018, the homeless die 22 years earlier than the general population.
To be sure, efforts to scale up the response are progressing. Shelters will be supported by the federal stimulus package with up to $4 billion in new resources that can be used to modify operations to prevent the spread of the virus in close quarters. Community spaces are being repurposed. Los Angeles is adding 6,000 shelter beds at city-owned recreation centers. Seattle, an early hot spot for the virus, has deployed an event space and a number of community centers to ease crowded conditions. Several communities are working with the hospitality sector to secure housing. In San Francisco, more than 8,000 rooms have been offered by hotels and motels in response to a call to help homeless residents, health care workers and first responders in need of safe places.
Cities are allocating additional resources and revising policies to prevent the spread of the virus. San Jose, California, is providing hand sanitizer and masks at homeless encampments, while Los Angeles has temporarily halted encampment cleanups to avoid disruption of tents and belongings. Austin has installed portable bathrooms and hand-washing facilities in at least 20 locations citywide.
All of these strategies and more are needed to stem the devastating risks of the virus for homeless older adults. A new academic study predicts more than 21,000 hospitalizations and 3,400 deaths of homeless adults if swift action is not taken.
It is not just the current population of homeless older adults who are at risk. Many older Americans are on the edge, rent-burdened and on the precipice of homelessness. The Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies found that in 2019 in California, 35% of renters ages 65 to 79, and 42% of renters 80 or older, were rent-burdened, meaning that more than half of their incomes went to housing. The job losses and economic strains resulting from the coronavirus crisis are placing many more at risk of losing their homes.
Cities are responding by imposing moratoriums on evictions, including Los Angeles and Miami. Others are providing rental assistance, such as Chicago, which launched the COVID-19 Housing Assistance Grant program to provide 2,000 grants to assist residents impacted by the pandemic. Advocates are calling for further measures, including forgiveness of missed rent payments to prevent loss of housing once the immediate threat has subsided and policies are rolled back.
Taken together, these interventions add up. But much more must be done.
The moral test of any society is how it treats its most vulnerable members, including those who are old and living in the shadows. The coronavirus crisis is a moment of emergency that will measure our own morality. As neighbors and citizens, we must voice our support for homeless older adults and for those at risk of becoming homeless. Lives are at stake, and our leaders, communities, philanthropic organizations and all levels of government must work together now to provide resources and solutions to meet the immediate need.