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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

The number of older homeless people is growing, spurred by low-wage jobs and lack of affordable housing.

Ilze Zarins-Ilgen and Johnny Beans spend much of their time searching for people they know only by nickname.

One early-morning outing found the two homeless outreach coordinators from the Community Health Association of Spokane looking for a man called Tennessee.

As Zarins-Ilgen pulled up to Coeur d’Alene Park, she wondered whether a figure under a heap of beige blankets snuggled up to the cinder block wall of the public restroom was him.

“This is one of his haunts, so it could be,” she said, gathering an offering of peanut butter crackers from her car. With a nod to the park at the heart of Browne’s Addition, a historic Spokane neighborhood that once was home to the city’s elite, she quipped, “He’s a 1 percenter.”

Tennessee is a 1 percenter because he’s a survivor, Zarins-Ilgen said. Approaching his mid-50s with rapidly compounding health problems, he represents a growing population of older homeless adults in America.

No money, no family, nowhere to go

The median age for homeless people is approaching 50, and experts expect that trend to accelerate with the aging of the baby boomers. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development predicted in 2010 that the number of homeless seniors will double between 2010 and 2050, leaving an estimated 95,000 senior citizens without shelter.

How those numbers trickle down to Spokane is hard to quantify because most homeless counts don’t sort results by age that specifically. But several local care providers said they’ve noted an increase in older homeless people.

“It’s alarming how many women I’m seeing who are over 50 in need of housing,” said Johnny Beans’ mother, Stephy Nobles-Beans, who runs Fields of Diamonds House of Blessings, a Christian transitional home for women. “There’s not much out there for you, if you are over a certain age and don’t have a child or a job.”

Nobles-Beans, affectionately called “Mama Beans” by her residents, said earlier this year she was getting anywhere from three to six calls a week from women in need of housing – either escaping a traumatic situation, such as substance abuse or domestic violence, or simply falling on hard times.

She said many of the women at her facility are newly homeless.

“I’ve got a woman who is living with me right now who is 63 and lost her home because the family member she was living with got into drugs,” she said earlier this year. “What do you do when you’re 63, have no money, nobody and nowhere to go?”

“I grit my teeth and give the ones I can’t take a list of housing options and shelters and I wish them luck,” Nobles-Beans added. “You want to save them all, but I’m doing this out of my own home and can only take a few at a time. I pray for them all.”

Lack of affordable housing hurts older working poor

Back in Coeur d’Alene Park, the man sleeping next to the restroom wasn’t Tennessee, but he gratefully accepted the peanut butter crackers offered by Zarins-Ilgen and Beans.

The CHAS team was looking for Tennessee because doctors said last summer that years of homelessness were taking a toll on his health. They wanted to talk to him about options for hospice.

They decided to continue their search at Shalom Ministries, a United Methodist church program that holds a free community breakfast Monday through Thursday. Tennessee didn’t attend the breakfast, but a man named Chris “Fingers” Hasseth, 65, introduced himself.

“I’m on a waiting list to get into a house,” Hasseth said. “My social worker is working on it, but I haven’t heard from her in a while.”

He got his nickname from a birth defect that left his hands with smaller-than-average fingers. He worked with motors most of his life, driving cement trucks at times and rebuilding engines at others. These days he sleeps in his 1980s Ford Escort when he can’t crash on a friend’s couch.

“I’ve been on the list for a home for so long, I’m getting numb to it,” he said.

Hasseth’s situation illustrates something Zarins-Ilgen said she’s seeing more of: Many of those appearing on the street late in life are people who worked low-paying or unspecialized jobs for most of their lives. Such jobs often don’t come with retirement benefits that can supplement Social Security in old age.

It’s a new wrinkle on the problem of homelessness, which also has deep roots in mental illness and addiction.

Lynn Kimball, executive director of Aging & Long Term Care of Eastern Washington, said many older men and women are affected by increased housing costs.

“Our organization tries to keep people in housing, but getting them into housing in the first place can be troublesome because there is a major void in affordable options,” Kimball said. “Sometimes keeping people there can be even harder.”

Tedd Kelleher, managing director of the housing assistance unit with the Washington Department of Commerce, told state legislators during the recent session that about a third of Spokane County households are defined as “cost burdened,” meaning they devote more than 30 percent of their income toward maintaining housing.

Federal investments in affordable housing are not keeping pace with inflation or population growth statewide, Kelleher told legislators.

Life on the street accelerates aging

William Bomberger, a CHAS physician assistant, joined Zarins-Ilgen and Beans midmorning as they continued to hunt for Tennessee.

The trio jogged across busy East Fourth Avenue to meet a giant man named Pony under the Interstate 90 overpass. Dressed head-to-toe in camouflage, he gently shook Bomberger’s and Beans’ hands, and Zarins-Ilgen embraced him, asking if he had seen Tennessee.

“We were drinking last time, maybe a couple days ago,” Pony said.

“Well, tell him he can’t hide from me forever,” Zarins-Ilgen said.

The team decided to make one last pass through Browne’s Addition before ending their search.

The car became quiet, the trio clearly frustrated.

As homeless adults age, they face health problems that typically are seen in people decades older.

“We see a sharp decline in quality of life as soon as older people lose their home, which can compound into other factors,” Bomberger said. “Even if you aren’t mentally ill, homelessness will take years off your life.”

Issues that affect a younger homeless population, like mental illness, addiction, infections and physical injuries, don’t always appear in older people.

“With this age demographic we’re seeing things like chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, advanced organ failure and heart failure,” Bomberger said.

As the CHAS car rolled back to the clinic, Zarins-Ilgen scanned the streets, hoping for a last-minute sighting of Tennessee.

“Well, if you see him, let me know,” Bomberger said. “I want to help, if he’ll let me.”

Spokesman-Review photojournalist Tyler Tjomsland wrote this article with support from the Journalists in Aging Fellows Program of the Gerontological Society of America and New America Media, sponsored by The SCAN Foundation.