Demographics of Homelessness Series: The Rising Elderly Population

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National Alliance to End Homelessness

Report | April 1, 2010

Files: PDF | 187 KB | 8 pages




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There is some troubling evidence that homelessness is beginning to increase among elderly adults. In addition, there are demographic factors — such as the anticipated growth of the elderly population as baby boomers turn 65 years of age and recent reports of increases in the number of homeless adults ages 50 to 64—that suggest a dramatic increase in the elderly homeless population between 2010 and 2020. While the country’s changing demographics may make this finding unsurprising, it has serious implications for providers of homeless services and should be deeply troubling to the policymakers that aim to prevent poverty and homelessness among the elderly through local and federal social welfare programs.

This paper provides an assessment of the recent and projected changes in homelessness among the elderly and assesses the ability of public affordable housing programs to handle the projected growth in elderly persons at-risk of housing instability and homelessness.

Homelessness Among the Elderly

While there is a fair amount known about elders experiencing poverty and about the general homeless population, there is relatively little known about the elderly homeless population. There are some things, however, that we do know:

Incidence

The elderly population has historically been underrepresented among the homeless population. The limited national homelessness data that have been collected over the past two decades are consistent in revealing that homelessness is much more prevalent among younger adults than among older adults and the elderly. A 1996 national study by the Urban Institute found that, while those over age 55 represented 28 percent of the general adult population, they made up only 8 percent of the homeless population.

Changes
There is very limited national data on the changing demographics of the homeless population, but the data that do exist show that homelessness among the elderly and older adults is modestly increasing. HUD’s first Annual Homelessness Assessment Report to Congress (AHAR), which covered a three-month period ending in April 2005, estimated that 2.4 percent of sheltered homeless adults were older than 62 years of age.3 HUD’s fourth AHAR, which covered the twelve-month period ending September 2008, showed that 2.8 percent of sheltered homeless adults were older than 62 years of age.4 To the extent that the two data points are comparable, they suggest very modestly increasing representation of the elderly among the homeless.

Demographic Changes Among the Elderly

There are two primary demographic factors that contribute to the projected increase in homelessness among the elderly. One is the overall growth in the elderly population, which is expected to more than double in size between now and 2050. The other factor is the relative stability in the proportion of the elderly population facing economic vulnerability. Together, these factors signal an increase in elder economic vulnerability and homelessness.

The Growing Elderly Population

There are more Americans over the age of 65 today than ever before and the number is rapidly increasing. During the past century, the number of elderly people has grown from 3.1 million in 1900 to 37 million in 2008—an increase of over 1,100 percent. The proportion of elderly Americans has also increased since 1900, when adults ages 65 and older made up only 4.1 percent of the population.9 Today, at 37 million, elderly Americans make up 12.6 percent of the population.



Economic Vulnerability among the Elderly

Poverty among elderly Americans has been relatively low since the 1960s. In 1959, the poverty rate for elder Americans was 35 percent. This fell to approximately 15 percent by 1975, due in large part to increases in government programs such as Social Security. Since that time, poverty rates among the elderly have steadily declined, remaining between 9 and 11 percent for the past decade. According to the 2008 American Community Survey, 9.9 percent of people over 65 years of age had annual incomes below the poverty threshold of $10,326 for a single person and $13,030 for a couple. A measure of even greater economic vulnerability is the proportion of elderly persons in deep poverty — earning only half of the poverty threshold. In 2008, there were over 969,925 elderly persons, or 2.6 percent of the elderly population, in deep poverty.

Projected Increase in Homelessness among Elderly

In the most recent AHAR, HUD estimates that there were 43,450 sheltered homeless people over the age of 62 in 2008. Because of anticipated increases in the elderly homeless population as the general population ages, a projection of the elderly homeless population is made in this paper. It is based on the following assumptions:
  • The elderly population will increase as projected by the U.S. Census Bureau through 2050.
  • The rate of deep poverty in the elderly population will remain constant at 2 percent through 2050, as it has remained since 1975.
  • The 2008 ratio of 1 sheltered elderly homeless person to every 22 elderly persons in deep poverty remains constant thorough 2050. 


As such, homelessness is projected to increase by 33 percent from 44,172 in 2010 to 58,772 in 2020 and will more than double between 2010 and 2050, when over 95,000 elderly persons are projected to be homeless.