London Breed discusses homeless seniors at SF State

Carly Wipf

While accepting the 2019 Distinguished Long Term Care Advocate Award for her work with aging communities, Mayor London Breed opened the ongoing discussion about homelessness among the city’s aging population to a public forum during her visit at SF State. 

SF State community members, medical experts and social service professionals gathered Sept. 27 for the 2019 SF State Silver Lining Lecture & SF DAAS Community Training. Students could get class credit by participating in the training and learning more about solutions proposed for SF’s homelessness issue. 

According to data collected by UCSF’s Margot Kushel, almost half of SF’s homeless population is 50 years of age or older. The median age for homelessness will continue to rise, according to a study called Health Outcomes of People Experiencing Homelessness in Older Middle Age (HOPE HOME) spearheaded by Kushel, who gave a presentation at the event after Breed’s speech.

 Kushel said that this age group is especially vulnerable to becoming and staying homeless due to declining health, mental illness, repeated victimization, racial injustice, substance abuse, imprisonment and lack of income as a young adult. 

HOPE HOME discovered that homeless people around 60 years old had poorer health conditions than non-homeless individuals in their 70s and 80s, posing a challenge for the city and community members tackling the homelessness epidemic. 

“It is very hard to care for an aging population in a shelter and impossible to care for an aging population who is living outdoors,” Kushel said.  

SF State president Lynn Mahoney and SF mayor London Breed listen to a presentation in the Seven Hills Conference center on Friday, Sept. 27. (photo by Carly Wipf / Golden Gate Xpress)

For Breed, the event’s keynote speaker, the issue of elder care is personal. She was raised by her grandmother who developed Alzheimer’s Disease. According to Breed, the challenges she faced getting her grandmother support inspired her initiatives.  

“I can’t help but think there are people out there who are seniors who are experiencing some of the same things,” Breed said. “And we have to make sure that they don’t fall through the cracks.”

SF State student and lecture attendee, Daneshia Cloyd said her 49-year-old father was homeless in Oakland for quite some time and she was shocked to hear the number of older adults experiencing homelessness will triple within the next 11 years. 

“I’m a struggling college student. I don’t own a home. I don’t have a place where I can have him come to,” Cloyd said. “I don’t want him to die on the street. That’s one of my biggest fears for him.”

According to HOPE HOME, there is a high mortality rate among the 50 and over group experiencing homelessness. Since the study began in 2012, 46 out of the 350 individuals in the cohort died. Seven additional deaths occurred out of 100 people enrolled last year. 

In a five year period, 11% of the homeless seniors enrolled in HOPE HOME died. Of the surviving, about 33% were in some form of stable housing and 34% were still homeless. The remainder of people were either in transition or could not be located. 

Breed is committing to create 1,000 new shelter beds. The city created 346 so far and aims to open 800 more by this upcoming spring.  Breed said that $5 million of this year’s budget will go toward homelessness prevention and subsidizing rentals for seniors who are at risk of losing their housing or who are leaving treatment facilities. She also backed an ordinance to increase pay for home health support workers to keep people employed in the industry. 

“I feel that in a lot of ways, what we do now won’t necessarily be seen or witnessed until later on so the work we have to do now is so important,” said Gerontology graduate student Landon Vandergriend. “No legislator, no politician is going to have an answer. It’s going to take time and attention and I think this is where it starts.”

Vandergriend experienced unstable living conditions as a youth and has other family members who are currently homeless. He said the data presented hit close to home.

“I had to live with a friend during a time when I was struggling right out of high school,” Vandergriend said. “My mom lost our apartment. I kind of can say I’ve experienced [homelessness] myself in a lot of ways, which in a lot of ways will affect my outlook today and where I’m going later in life.”

Kushel said she hopes by sharing the study results at SF State, students and graduates will advocate for policies that will improve conditions. 

The goal, according to Kushel, is to keep individuals who are aging and experiencing homelessness within their familiar community for as long as possible. She said solutions can be found in expanding programs that provide support for elders, including in-house care for seniors living in affordable and temporary housing units.

“If we don’t believe we can solve this problem, we’re never going to solve this problem,” Kushel said. “We need to start somewhere.”