A Monster Wave of Older Adult Homelessness

Imagine reaching your golden years, a time meant for rest and reflection, only to find yourself without a home. This is the stark reality for an increasing number of kūpuna (elder adult) in Hawaii, mirroring a recent national report just released by the National Alliance to End Homelessness that paints a troubling picture of a rapidly growing segment of our population — older adults experiencing homelessness.

Far from being mere statistics, this issue represents a growing tragedy that impacts real people in our island communities.

The Rising Wave

Homelessness among older adults is growing like a North Shore winter swell. By 2030, their numbers are projected to triple, turning a once-manageable issue into a full-blown crisis. These individuals, having weathered many of life’s storms, often laboring through decades of productive employment, now find themselves facing the added challenge of homelessness in their final years.

For those experiencing chronic homelessness, their struggle is not simply about the loss of a home. For some, it’s a battle against complex health issues, often worsened by lifelong vulnerabilities and the harsh reality of living without a safe and affordable home. Their stories resonate with the urgency resulting from societal neglect over time and cry out for critically needed systems change. For others, experiencing Homelessness for the first time after a life of responsible, productive living brings shock and shame. Both groups need our Kokua.

Navigating the System

For many older adults, seeking assistance is like navigating a labyrinth. Their path is fraught with obstacles — from gaps in knowledge about applying for Medicare benefits and available services from their health plan, to physical and systemic barriers that leave many disabled and unsupported. That’s where IHS often steps in, educating, resourcing and supporting with solutions. Having identified this sad trend early on, staff have been trained to recognize signs of dementia, depression and decline associated with traumatic brain injury — all common needs among an aging population.

Compounding their difficulties is the acute shortage of housing and healthcare services that cater to their unique needs. The limited options that do exist often fall short, leaving these individuals to face their later years without the dignity and care they deserve.

Pioneering Change

In this challenging landscape, there are, however, glimmers of hope. Emerging studies like the one referenced earlier have begun to confirm what we’ve been observing at IHS for a while and call for a significant shift in prioritizing the challenges faced by older adults experiencing homelessness.

What lies ahead is a need for more cohesive and coordinated actions to bridge service gaps and build a comprehensive support system for these vulnerable community members.

Strategic Approaches to Support Homeless Older Adults

Key strategies have been identified for policymakers and service providers to better support older adults at risk of or experiencing homelessness:

  • For Policymakers: Implement preventative resources, aid for living expenses, expand affordable housing options, enhance HCBS (Home and Community-Based Services) coverage, improve data collection, strengthen cross-system coordination, and continue innovative pandemic projects.
  • For Service Providers: Increase proactive identification, enhance service documentation, provide assistance with medical equipment, offer targeted staff training, and improve access to income assistance programs.

A Call for Compassionate Action

How we respond to the plight of homeless older adults is and will be a reflection of who we are as a community. As we plan ahead for tomorrow, we cannot leave behind those who helped build the world we live in today.

Hawaii boasts one of the highest rates of seniors in the nation. There’s no reason we couldn’t also lead with creative solutions to meet emerging needs. Developing a network of public assisted living villages that are designed or retrofitted to meet the special needs of the aging, establishing Service Kiosks across the community in partnership with faith communities and shopping malls alike, and promoting and designing communities to promote intergenerational activities as the norm are a few strategies we could employ. The theme here is keeping kūpuna integrated with the wider community while allocating due resources to meet special needs. The quality of life for all members of our community will be lifted when we choose a collective, compassionate response — one that both acknowledges the unique challenges faced by older adults without a home and continues to honor the legacy of their lives among us, ensuring that our solutions not only bring seniors together but resource their lives together, fostering a vibrant, interconnected community that cherishes every member, regardless of age.

For more information about The Institute for Human Services, visit ihshawaii.org.

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The Institute for Human Services, IHS

Hawaii’s oldest and most comprehensive human services agency focused exclusively on ending homelessness.