Hundreds of thousands of homeless people could die over the next decade as the homeless population in the United States grows older but continues to lack access to proper housing, food, or medical care.
As researchers from the University of Pennsylvania pointed out in a recent study, the homeless demographic problem is stark. Modern homelessness in American society largely began in the early 1980s due to a confluence of factors, including double-dip recessions, the crack epidemic, and the closing of psychiatric institutions. The result was a boom in the number of individuals without shelter, an acute problem begun only 30 years ago that has continued to this day.
That’s because it’s incredibly difficult to pull oneself out of the cycle of homelessness. Sen. Chris Murphy (D-CT) learned this fact all too well during the holidays when he spent a day shadowing a homeless man to learn more about the challenges he faced. As Murphy tweeted at the time, “it’s almost impossible to 1) find a job while living in a shelter, 2) get out of the shelter w/o a job.” Add on top of that the lack of affordable housing and recurring health or addiction problems and it’s not difficult to see why so many people who became homeless in the 1980s still find themselves without shelter today.
Indeed, University of Pennsylvania professor Dennis Culhane showed in a study last year that the homeless population in the United States keeps getting older and older. As the San Francisco Chronicle noted, in 1990, the median age of a single homeless adult was 34; 20 years later, the median age was 53. In other words, fewer individuals in later generations have found themselves on the streets, but older generations are also finding it more difficult to get off them.
The problem is becoming increasingly dire, the Chronicle pointed out, because the average life expectancy for a homeless person is 64. (The average life expectancy in the United States as a whole is currently 79 years old.) In a decade, therefore, the United States is facing a massive surge in the number of homeless people expected to die.
Currently, there are approximately 400,000 homeless people in the United States who were born before 1964. Within 15 years, Culhane estimated, nearly every one of them will be dead.
That is, unless cities and communities undertake a concerted effort to get their homeless residents into housing. A few cities are making remarkable progress on this front, including Phoenix and Salt Lake City, which both recently succeeded in ending chronic homelessness among veterans by providing them housing first. It’s not only more humane to provide housing and care for our homeless population, particularly those who are aging; it’s also cheaper. With more than 600,000 homeless people in the United States who aren’t getting any younger, the problem is as great as it is urgent.