The Society for Social Work and Research

2013 Annual Conference

January 16-20, 2013 I Sheraton San Diego Hotel and Marina I San Diego, CA

Older Adults' Pathways Through Homelessness: The Role of Economic Challenges and Resources

Friday, January 18, 2013: 10:30 AM
Executive Center 3A (Sheraton San Diego Hotel & Marina)
* noted as presenting author
Kelly (Mills-Dick) Melekis, PhD, PhD Candidate, Boston University, Boston, MA
Background and Purpose: While the poverty rate for older Americans has declined steadily over the past several decades, it remains a significant problem with nearly one in ten adults age 65 and older living below the federal poverty level (O’Brien, Wu, & Baer, 2010).  Unfortunately the availability of benefits and improvements in the poverty rate among older adults has been translated into a lack of concern and response to elders living in poverty and homelessness.  With over 75,000 homeless elders in the U.S. today, and an increase expected due to population aging, it is critical that we better understand facilitators and barriers to maintaining safe, secure housing for older adults.  The primary purpose of this study was to explore how older adults and outreach workers define and mitigate problems associated with urban elder homelessness.  This paper will highlight the role of economic challenges and resources in older adults’ pathways through homelessness.

Methods: This paper will present findings from a qualitative study that utilized a constructionist, phenomenological approach to explore how older adults and outreach workers define and mitigate problems associated with urban elder homelessness.  A series of in-depth interviews and field observations with 20 homeless elders and 6 outreach workers were utilized to illuminate the perspectives of those on the frontlines and understand pathways through homelessness.  Data wereas collected over the course of one year and analyzed using an inductive, interpretive, and iterative process (Lincoln & Guba, 1985) and an empirical phenomenological approach (Aspers, 2009).

Findings: While a range of complex, multi-faceted factors were noted as impacting the housing status of older adults, participants articulated foundational economic challenges.  The most commonly identified conditions perceived as contributors to homelessness included economic issues such as a lack of employment opportunities, the unavailability of affordable housing, and health care costs, with age highlighted as a compounding factor.  Economic issues were primary aspects of older adult participants’ constructions of pathways both in and out of homelessness.  Regardless of the presence of other resources, income and housing were perceived as requirements for problem resolution.  Overall, participant narratives illustrated either an accumulation or saturation of disadvantages, culminating in and complicating pathways through elder homelessness.  Findings underscore the need for a continuum of responses to address housing, economic, health and social support needs and strengthen the safety net toward the prevention and resolution of poverty and homelessness.

Implications: This study provides valuable insights as to the role of economic factors in pathways through homelessness among older adults. While it is difficult to predict future rates of poverty for older adults, the population of vulnerable elderly with higher poverty rates, including the oldest-old and elders of color, is anticipated to grow at a faster rate than the overall older adult population (Administration on Aging, 2002; Gonyea, 1995).  It is essential to consider the potential for widespread economic ramifications and challenges to service delivery.  With less income available for other necessities such as food, medicine, and health care, the poor elderly are particularly vulnerable to homelessness.