Joan Reichardt is the honourary chair of Homelessness Action Week 2014.

COLUMN: Homelessness is a problem for seniors

Joan Reichardt is the honourary chair of Homelessness Action Week 2014, and chair of the Nelson and District Seniors Coordinating Society

The Nelson Committee on Homelessness works with the community all year long to address poverty and homelessness issues and find solutions. Once each year they organize Homelessness Action week, raising the awareness of all of us. This year seniors-at-risk is their focus. Most of us do not see senior citizens as part of the homeless population; we think more of transient youth, street people, folks with substance abuse issues — but older people are not immune. Homelessness is a problem for seniors.

The lack of enough income and affordable, supportive housing options are two main factors creating homelessness.

Someone who has had periods of being hard to house because of various challenges does not suddenly become not hard to house on their 65th birthday. If these seniors have the ability to access information on how to apply for their pensions, at least they will have some money, we hope! But to apply for OAS (old age security) you need a mailing address; if you want GIS (guaranteed income subsidy) you must file an income tax return every year.

Some folks fall through this crack. If you apply for OAS the amount is pro-rated depending on how long you have lived in Canada, and the maximum is $564 per month — which doesn’t go far. The guaranteed income supplement ranges from $507 to $764.

If you can get into subsidized housing your rent is geared to income, but wait lists are long and slow moving. In the private sector the average advertised one-bedroom unit in 2013 was $772 per month, which is about 58 per cent of a basic OAS/GIS income — 28 per cent more than the 30 per cent you should spend on housing.

When anyone pays 50 per cent or more for a roof over their head, what is left has to cover everything else, including food, transportation costs, medications not covered by Pharmacare, clothing and so on. Anyone living on the basic pensions is not exactly rolling in cash.

Our Daily Bread and our local Food Cupboard see the result of this. One in five food recipients are now seniors, and that number is reported to be growing.

The group that concerns me as much, however, is those who are victims of creeping homelessness. These are seniors living in their own homes, getting along well. Then the partner dies, the income is drastically reduced, maybe there is now no driver, or the car is too expensive to run, and doing the odd jobs around the house becomes a real challenge.

These are the seniors, mostly elderly women, who become isolated, upset because they can no longer manage the chores of daily living, and don’t know where to turn. All too often their condition deteriorates, something happens (maybe a fall) and they end up in an acute care bed in the hospital because there is no place for them. Waiting lists for residential care beds are long, especially subsidized beds, so we have seniors in acute care beds for weeks and sometimes months, at more than $1,000 per day.

Part of the solution is providing help upstream before folks get to the point of no return. Getting some help into the home is much cheaper than acute care (which they don’t necessarily need), and what most seniors would prefer. It’s the same principle as supporting people with mental health issues to stabilize their health and housing situation, avoiding costly crises interventions.

We have a BC seniors ombudsperson named Kim Carter, who strongly urges this approach for seniors. We need to work on these at-risk-of-homelessness situations.

I invite you to take this opportunity during Homelessness Action Week to come out to an event and inform yourself a bit more. Together we can try to make a difference.

— Joan Reichardt is the honourary chair of Homelessness Action Week 2014, and chair of the Nelson and District Seniors Coordinating Society

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