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