CITY COUNCIL TACKLES GROWING PROBLEM OF SENIOR HOMELESSNESS

In Council News, Kendra Brooks, News by PHL Council

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The public hearing revealed the mounting crisis of seniors experiencing homelessness in the city, examined issues faced by seniors in shelter care, and identified potential policy solutions

PHILADELPHIA—Yesterday, the Committee on Intergenerational Affairs and Aging, chaired by Councilmember Kendra Brooks, held a public hearing on how the housing crisis is impacting aging Philadelphians, with a focus on seniors experiencing homelessness or living in the shelter system. Previous hearings in this series, spearheaded by Brooks, have examined the challenges faced by senior renters and senior homeowners, respectively, exploring gentrification, tangled titles, evictions, and toxic housing stock. The hearing drew connections and built off of issues raised during previous committee hearings by bringing together a number of seniors, senior-serving organizations, policy experts, disability advocates, and City leaders. Testimonies focused on the wide range of factors that contribute to the growing issue of senior homelessness, including the dearth of affordable housing, shelter capacity, and the shortage of accessible dwelling units. 

“With each hearing that we’ve had so far—on the issues facing senior homeowners, senior renters, and now, seniors experiencing homelessness or who are in shelter care—we come closer to finding durable, long-term solutions to these pressing issues,” said Councilmember Kendra Brooks (At-Large).  “And we are also beginning to make important connections across these hearings that demonstrate the dire need for ambitious policy that makes our city livable, accessible, and affordable for residents of all ages.”

On the heels of the death of Jennifer Bennetch, founder of Occupy PHA and lead organizer of the “Camp JTD” and “Camp Teddy” homeless encampments of 2020, housing advocates and councilmembers alike recalled the grassroots movement to secure permanent housing for unsheltered populations.

“In the summer of 2020 I worked with Councilmember Gauthier to mediate negotiations between the organizers of the homeless encampments and the City in order to find a peaceful resolution,” recalled Brooks. “During that time, I visited the homeless encampments on the Parkway and in North Philly a number of times, and forged relationships with the people living there. I was shocked by how many of the people facing homelessness at those camps were seniors.  And so many of them wanted to live autonomously, and did not want to be in shelters for various reasons, but did not have the resources to afford housing on their own.”

“While I am appreciative of the fact that the city has promised to give some houses to the Community Land Trust, we all know it is not enough,” said Jazmyn Jenderson, a member of ACT UP!. “There are still people who were part of that encampment that are still on the street and alone because the solutions that were provided by the city were not enough for all of those folks let alone all the homeless in this city. What we see is that PHA has a lot of properties that are falling apart because they have been empty for so long. A lot of neighborhoods have empty houses that could and should be taken and allowed to be rehabilitated so that families that need these spaces can have somewhere safe to live. Instead what we are seeing is these properties being sold fixed up and then rented out at a rate that most residents of Philadelphia simply can not afford.”

According to the Office of Homeless Services, over 10,000 people in Philadelphia entered into an emergency shelter, safe haven, or transitional or permanent housing project last year. However, only about a quarter of that population ended up transitioning into permanent affordable housing. Individuals who interact directly with housing insecure seniors expressed frustration at the failure of city and state to meet the needs of those who live in shelter care. Kathi Flemming, who works for The Center Philadelphia, which provides meals and wellness services for vulnerable residents experiencing homelessness and struggling with food insecurity, became emotional during the hearing as she recounted the number of elderly community members who aren’t able to transition into permanent housing.

“There is no excuse for so many people being housing insecure,” said Flemming. “Our seniors and other housing insecure individuals that we serve are asking us what we can do for them. And sometimes we don’t have answers. As social workers, we’re told to not get personally involved. But when you are working with a participant who is a senior, and you see how the system is failing them, how can I not look at him and see my own father?”

The hearing also brought together a number of seniors who shared firsthand experiences with housing insecurity. Many of them recounted heart-wrenching stories that spanned unmet medical needs, difficult experiences with the shelter system, and abusive landlords. Asantewaa Nkrumah-Ture, an organizer with the Philadelphia Tenants Union and a senior renter, faced harassment, physical threats, and an illegal eviction. In her testimony, she called for stronger tenant protections to prevent senior homelessness.

“We need rent control,” said Nkrumah-Ture. “We need good cause legislation that has teeth. And we need organized tenants committed to housing justice. We must organize ourselves if we are to realize housing as a human right.”

Nearly sixteen percent of Philadelphians have a physical, emotional, or cognitive disability, the highest of any large city in the United States, according to 2016 data from the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey—and thirty-two percent of disabled Philadelphians are at least 65. Domonique Howell, a disability activist and Independent Living Specialist at Liberty Resources, spoke powerfully during the hearing about the perfect storm of structural obstacles faced by low-income seniors with a disability when they seek housing.

“So many of our clients cannot use Section 8 housing because it is difficult to find accessible housing, and it forces many of them into shelters or out of the city,” said Howell. “Most of my consumers that call are looking for accessible housing and have access to vouchers, but when you search the PHA website for available units you find places that do not accept vouchers, are not accessible, or say they don’t have the resources to make the unit accessible. This is a huge ongoing issue that contributes to senior homelessness. What is the purpose of the voucher if it doesn’t house these individuals? It’s heartbreaking. And I had this same exact issue when I myself was homeless. I had a voucher but couldn’t use it. Across the city, seniors and senior-serving agencies are still dealing with this issue, and we need to address it.”

Testifiers also highlighted potential policy solutions to address the issues raised during the hearing, such as stabilizing rent costs, increasing Supplemental Security Income payments, or growing the number of accessible, low-income units that accept housing vouchers in the city. Dennis Culhane, Professor of Social Policy at the University of Pennsylvania, focuses his research on seniors facing homelessness in large cities. He emphasized the urgency of addressing the growing population of aging Philadelphians experiencing homelessness. Culhane projects that the national number of elderly homeless will triple between 2017 and 2030, growing from 40,000 to 106,000. He noted in his testimony that one of the contributing factors to senior homelessness is the high number of individuals who have chronic health conditions and disabilities, and described a three-pronged approach to stem this growing issue.

“The people who are elderly, disabled, and homelessness are severely under-served,” said Culhane. “First, we need to have much more aggressive SSI outreach to older adults who are likely eligible, potentially using a screening tool with cash advances for which the city could get paid back by the federal government, Then, we also need to add a supplement to the SSI amount, which we are calling a housing allowance guarantee. This would be much more flexible than the voucher, and would help people move into a shared living arrangement. The third piece is who is going to provide these services. The federal government has recently issued new guidelines, which included an increase in funds that could be used for housing navigation case management and tenancy support. There is money available through the Medicaid Program to do this, but we need to bring these organizations together to encourage them. The proposal is essentially that we fix the safety net that is broken and use the funds that are already there.”

“Our seniors facing homelessness are among our most vulnerable community members—they are our parents, grandparents, uncles, and neighbors,” said Brooks. “And so many of our seniors facing homelessness lack family support, have multiple disabilities, struggle with substance use disorder, or are unable to work. Many others live their lives in a revolving door of shelters and struggle to ever find a permanent home. As the baby boomer population ages into a city and country with a broken social safety net, we need to move with urgency and precision to address this crisis. To look the other way when we have the opportunity to act would be simply unconscionable.”

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Watch the hearing:

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