May 29, 2019Blog

Invisible Women of California

By: CS Hecht
May 29, 2019

MONTEREY, CA… As a professional athlete in her 20’s, Barbara* thought that she would always have a successful life, home, husband, children and career. Now, she is living in her car in her 50’s. She yearns to reunite with her estranged children and grandchildren but difficult communication and relationship issues are preventing her from doing so. She receives SSI disability and has limited health insurance.

Lori*, a professional editor, 72, with a college degree, works whenever she can to supplement her Social Security income. She is frightened about having to sleep in her old Chevy with her two service dogs. She receives $20 a month from SNAP (Food Stamps), is disabled, has diabetes and her poodles have saved her life on numerous occasions.

Mary*, a 70 year old writer, lost her job last year due to a layoff (nonprofit lost major funding) and has had to sleep in her van with her senior service dog. Last summer, her laptop computer and other valuables in a bag were stolen while she and her dog slept in the car.

“It was scary. I woke up at 4 am and saw someone put their hand in the front window of my car and take my computer bag. I was in a hotel parking lot and thought that I was safe. I called the police but I had no license plate number or description of the person or their car.

“My parents used to point out the Mary Sugar Bums as a warning. The old ladies that we’d see on the streets pushing shopping carts with all of their belongings. I put myself through college, worked six jobs. I had a decent income and always managed to keep a roof over my head and food in my stomach. Even when I traveled around the world “living on faith” with a prayer ministry in the 1980’s. I visited Bangladesh, England, France, Greece, Germany, Holland, India, Israel, and Thailand. It was eye opening to see people living in such poverty. It was much worse than in New York, Florida, Nevada, Arizona or California. People in India and Bangladesh lived in mud on the streets and makeshift huts .”

Cindy* is a teacher living with her dog Teddy Bear in her car. She is 55 and not working during the summer. Teaching has been her profession for years but jobs have been harder to come by in recent years. She substitute teaches when there are jobs.

From 2006 to 2016, the number of bans on vehicle residency increased 143 percent among 187 cities surveyed by the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty.

All of the women cited above are dealing with stress, bans against sleeping in cars, fears of being assaulted and harassed, sleep deprivation, poor nutrition, lack of assistance and housing and discrimination. They all used to be middle class and are appalled at having nowhere to call home now that they are seniors.

Besides having to live in their cars in their “golden years,” Barbara, Lori, Cindy and Mary are all professional, college graduates, middle class, competent, creative, resourceful, yet are struggling to meet their basic needs in their older years. None of them fit the myths and stereotypes of people without homes. They are not alcoholics, mentally ill, drug addicts nor do they want to be living without a sanctuary, a nest, shelter, a home of their own. In America, 43% of seniors 65+ cannot afford rent, food and other basic necessities. They struggle to meet their expenses with meager incomes.

Even pooling their money together, they cannot afford to share a home like the Golden Girls on TV. With incomes of less than $1,000 per month, and the reality that they individually need $2,500 per month to meet basic needs in the Bay area, they cannot afford motel rooms nor housing of any kind. None of them have been given assistance of any substance by local churches or social service organizations.

“There is assistance for food, used clothing and sometimes gas gift cards but no housing assistance because affordable housing is lacking, especially for seniors,” Barbara explained.

There are 1,000+ women, many over 50, in the Monterey area alone who have no homes, living in cars, vans, RV’s or on the streets. Most women are invisible, they live stealthily under the radar, afraid of being forced to give up their cars and dogs and of being harassed by strange men and police.

The loss of dignity, privacy and a sense of safety in the world is devastating.

An Introspective into the Life Facets of an Older Homeless Woman’s story

50% of women without homes do not have shelter due to domestic violence/abuse.

Mary and Lori both lived in homes with abusive landlords and the situations became untolerable.

“Being tormented on a daily basis is painful, to say the least. I don’t need someone lying about me, barging into my room and butting into my personal life. My landlord texted me at odd hours to complain about nonexistent problems. She was very negative and would call me names, bossing me around and telling me what to do. It got to be too much for me,” Lori described.

California has the highest rate of senior poverty in the nation. Older adults are struggling to make ends meet and stay in their homes, especially in the parts of California with the highest housing costs. Homelessness among California seniors is on the rise says Justice in Aging.

San Jose, Los Angeles, and San Francisco are among the Top 10 least affordable housing markets in the entire World.

“California’s senior population is expected to grow by 50 percent in the next decade. For the seniors left out in the cold, their only option is living in their cars.”

Elderly homelessness is on the rise & 40% of those without homes are 50+

A fact sheet from the National Healthcare for the Homeless Council projects that the number of “homeless elderly” (which they define as those aged 65 and over) will increase to 58,000 by 2020. It also notes that the median age of homeless adults in the U.S. rose to 50 years (from 35 years) between 1990 and 2010.

“More of us are being pushed into poverty as we grow older. Programs like Social Security are not keeping up with structural economic and demographic changes and they are constantly under attack to pay for tax cuts for the wealthy.

“The problem is growing as more Baby Boomers reach retirement age — between 8,000 to 10,000 Americans turn 65 every day, according to Kevin Prindiville, the executive director of Justice in Aging, a nonprofit that addresses senior poverty. Older Americans were the only demographic for whom poverty rates increased in a statistically significant way between 2015 and 2016, according to Census Bureau data.

“Increasingly, we’re seeing folks who are becoming poor for the first time in old age.

“Today’s seniors are so reliant on Social Security in part because companies that once provided pensions began, in the 1970s, to turn the responsibility of retirement saving over to individuals.

“The recession and economic trends in the years since have also worsened the finances of millions of seniors. Some bought homes during the housing boom and then found they owed more on their homes than they were worth, and had to walk away. Others invested in the stock market and saw their investments shrink dramatically.

“Average wages, when adjusted for inflation, have remained near where they were in the 1970s, which makes it hard for workers to increase their savings.

“These troubles can be particularly hard on women. That’s in part because they typically receive lower benefits than men do. In 2014, older women received on average $4,500 less annually in Social Security benefits than men did. They received lower wages when they worked, which leads to smaller monthly checks from Social Security. They also are more likely to take time off from work to care for children or aging parents, which translates to less time contributing to Social Security and thus lower monthly benefit amounts.

“I see more homeless seniors than I’ve ever seen before” Rose Mayes, the executive director of the nonprofit Fair Housing Council of Riverside County, just east of Los Angeles, told me. In America in 2016, nearly half of all single homeless adults were aged 50 and older, compared to 11 percent in 1990.”

“A recent study of homeless seniors in Oakland by Margot Kushel, a doctor and professor of medicine at UC San Francisco, reported that 44 percent of homeless adults experienced their first bout of homelessness after age 50.

“This group ages in hyper-speed. Although the participants’ average age is 57, they experience strokes, falls, visual impairment and urinary incontinence at rates typical of US residents in their late 70s and 80s.

“The situation in California is particularly acute. Nearly 70% of the 130,000 people without homes in the state are considered to be ‘unsheltered’, living on the streets or in locations unfit for human habitation, compared with just 5% in New York City. In the San Francisco Bay Area roughly 28,200 people are homeless.

“The United States’ homeless population is also greying: rising housing prices in many areas have increased the rate of homelessness among ‘baby boomers’. But many hospitals, police and homeless shelters are unprepared to deal with the special needs of an ageing homeless population.”

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When Serggio Lanata moved to San Francisco in 2013, he was stunned by its sprawling tent cities. “Homelessness was…

It is Mary’s fervent wish to get another job and to obtain a camper to live in where she could have some sense of normalcy in her life again. Home Sweet Home is no longer a meaningless saying. She also wishes that Americans would stop throwing vulnerable people away like trash and treat senior women with respect.

Life savers for Mary have been organizations like Feeding Pets of the Homeless, an organization in Carson City, Nevada founded by a mother and her daughter to assist people without homes around the country to feed their beloved pets and on a limited basis basic vet care. Also the mobile vet (Pawsitive Pets in Carmel), The Raw Connection, Pet Food Express, and Dawgoneit, dog boarders who have taken care of her dog whenever she is in the hospital. And Wanda Sue Parrott, Homeless in Paradise columnist for the Cedar Street Times and other dear friends. Plus, the kindness of strangers.

*not their real names


CS Hecht

Writer. Editor. Teacher. Nomadic. Read my blog at exNew Yorker, living in California with Cici dog, polka dot princess