Abstract: Older Homeless Women Navigating the Streets and Shelters: Aging-in-Place or Stuck-in-Place? (Society for Social Work and Research 27th Annual Conference - Social Work Science and Complex Problems: Battling Inequities + Building Solutions)

All in-person and virtual presentations are in Mountain Standard Time Zone (MST).

SSWR 2023 Poster Gallery: as a registered in-person and virtual attendee, you have access to the virtual Poster Gallery which includes only the posters that elected to present virtually. The rest of the posters are presented in-person in the Poster/Exhibit Hall located in Phoenix A/B, 3rd floor. The access to the Poster Gallery will be available via the virtual conference platform the week of January 9. You will receive an email with instructions how to access the virtual conference platform.

Older Homeless Women Navigating the Streets and Shelters: Aging-in-Place or Stuck-in-Place?

Friday, January 13, 2023
North Mountain, 2nd Level (Sheraton Phoenix Downtown)
* noted as presenting author
Judith Gonyea, PhD, Professor, Boston University, Boston, MA
Arden O'Donnell, MPH, MSW, LICSW, Doctoral Student, Boston University, Boston, MA
Background and Purpose: The emergence of “aging in place” as social policy in the U.S. and globally reflects an understanding that a home is more than a physical domicile, it is also a source of identity and social connection. Research suggests that “aging in place” not only offers multiple benefits to older persons but is also leads to cost savings for health systems and governments. Yet, relatively little research exists on the interaction of gender and age on precarious housing. Older homeless women have often been an invisible population; however, this is changing as their numbers grow. Today, women age 50+ represent 30% of sheltered homeless adults. In this qualitative study, we explored the question, “What does “aging in place” mean to women in their fifties who are navigating the streets and shelter system?” The purpose of study was to gain a deeper understanding of the impacts of daily displacement and migration and to use the women’s own accounts to inform a critical analysis of the practices and policies of the shelter and housing systems.

Methods: Women were recruited via a poster in a women’s day shelter inviting them to participate in an onsite private confidential interview about their homelessness experiences. To be eligible, women had to be in their fifties, homeless for a minimum of one month, and English-speaking. Our focus on women in their fifties was driven by the fact that they are face significant challenges as “tweeners;” they are too young for many old-age benefits, but also as older women do have dependent age children and thus are excluded from many family-focused benefits. All participants received a $25 cash honorarium. Using a narrative analysis approach, in depth semi-structured interviews were conducted, recorded, and transcribed verbatim. Braun and Clarks’ reflexive thematic analysis (2019, 2022) was used to provide structure and rigor to the qualitative analysis. The six-phase structured analytic process (familiarization, open coding, generation of initial themes, developing and reviewing themes, refining, and naming themes and interpretation/analysis) supports the development of a “qualitative sensibility” and guides movement beyond quantitative aspects of theme collection to insure a more reflexive stance.

Results: All 15 participants were chronically homeless; nine self-identified as Black, two as Black and Native American, and four as white. Identified challenges centered on six themes: 1) loss of a sense of control, self-determination, and independence, 2) lack of physical security, 3) a diminishing of one’s physical and emotional health, 4) lack of comfort, familiarity, and routine; 5) weakening or loss of social connections; and 6) a diminished sense of self-worth.

Conclusions and Implications: The findings highlight the links between place, sense of belonging, and identity. To be displaced from a physical home presented challenges to the women even in terms of defining their own existence. The data underscored that shelters were dehumanizing places that further diminished the women’s sense of self. Reforms, which are needed to disrupt current practices that further disempower and stigmatize the women and fail to support their pathways out of homelessness, are discussed.