I grew up next to the railroad tracks in the 1960s. Among my earliest memories are trains passing with men in the boxcars or occasionally riding on top. Many, I presume, were heading, if not to greener pastures, then downtown to the flophouses and residential hotels of the Gateway District, known as Skid Row. That was the face of homelessness in that era.

Today, rail cars are sealed and the downtown hotels are long gone, but there are more homeless people than ever. Homelessness has become more democratic, if you will. Families, young people and single women have joined the ranks of the homeless in force.

But, more recently, the face of homelessness is increasingly the face of an adult 55 and older, the fastest-growing segment of the homeless population. With their numbers up some 60 percent in Minnesota since 2009, they now represent one-third of the homeless adult population.

Many homeless seniors never dreamed they would end up like this. But divorce, widowhood or estrangement from family often means diminished social connections. Loss of work, due to downsizing, disability or the changing nature of needed work skills, not only robs them of a sense of personal worth, but is financially catastrophic and can lead to lost housing. Their personal safety net, taken for granted through the years, unravels — and thus the spiral to the streets.

For most older homeless women and men, this is their first experience on the street, and they are wholly unprepared.

More than just lacking dignity, life for homeless seniors is not healthful. Some 71 percent of older homeless have a chronic physical or mental health condition. On a recent visit to a large downtown Minneapolis shelter, it became clear what this has meant for the homeless and the agencies that struggle to serve them.

Wheelchairs and walkers were everywhere. Cancer, diabetes-related amputations, and assorted respiratory conditions were common. Diseases of the brain, including dementia and depression, seem especially cruel for the homeless to live with. Shelter staff members, as usual, make due with the barest of resources. Bunk beds, long a staple in shelters as a way to squeeze in as many people as possible, don’t work so well for those with mobility limitations. Special diets, refrigeration for insulin and other medications, and accommodations for those who need to get up frequently in the middle of the night all must be addressed. Shelter workers on the night shift may or may not be qualified to determine appropriate care or whether hospitalization is warranted in a crisis.

The health care system doesn’t help, with patients routinely discharged to shelters. While hardly conducive to recovery, it beats the street, where the indigent too often end up.

Imagine healing from surgery or trying to cope with dementia while living outside, or in a shelter? That is reality every day for homeless seniors.

Serving the elderly homeless also presents unique challenges for agencies working with them. Unlike younger adults, those 55 and older are rarely employable and less independent, so they don’t have as much opportunity to escape a homeless life. Most have no more dreams for the future than simply a safe and comfortable place to live out their lives. With a median monthly income of less than $800 and the average one-bedroom unit in the Twin Cities renting for more than that, it is no wonder that a shelter is their only viable option.

Most homeless seniors are on various housing waiting lists, but the supply is grossly insufficient, and the wait is long. It’s hard to imagine that in these uncertain political times that is going to change. So shelters become one of the last protections to life on the street.

Ironically, trains are again temporary home for the poorest among us — a quasi-indoor protection against the street.

But these are no longer freight trains rolling toward new towns and a chance at a new beginning. Today’s homeless ride light-rail cars, warm but heading nowhere.

 

Ed Murphy, of Minneapolis, is executive director of Open Your Heart to the Hungry and Homeless.