OAKLAND (KPIX 5) — More people than ever before are “aging into homelessness.” Right now, more than half of the Bay Area homeless population is over the age of 50.
At a time when most of his peers are collecting their pensions, Earl Pratt is collecting cans. At 57 years old, he’s homeless for the first time in his life. Pratt is part of a growing population, not just of the homeless in Oakland, but of people who become homeless for the first time over the age of fifty.
Pratt lives on Wood Street in one of Oakland’s largest homeless encampments, where humans and rats dig through the same debris. He says most days on Wood Street are “very, very stressful.”
“I didn’t know how to set up no tent, didn’t know anything about being homeless. I was just dropped out there,” he said.
Dr. Margot Kushel at the University of California, San Francisco has studied homelessness for more than two decades now. Earlier this year, Kushel and her team at UCSF received $30 million from Marc and Lynne Benioff to study housing and homelessness in the Bay Area.
For the past two decades, UCSF researchers have focused on those aging into homelessness; Pratt is a participant in a program that tracks homeless people over age 50.
“They’re terrified, frightened, they feel hopeless and they feel unseen and unheard…It’s enraging, enraging that we let older, frail people live out the last part of their lives outside,” Kushel said.
She points out that back in 1990, only 11% of the nation’s homeless population was over the age of 50–today more than 50% are. 44% of the aging homeless population became homeless for the first time after turning the big 5-0.
“Something happened after 50,” Kushel said.
Pratt lost his construction job. That same year, his mother and his son died suddenly.
“It is not cheap burying two people, right? Also, it’s not cheap working and paying for transportation to and back from work,” Pratt said.
Kushel’s research found you’re likely to age 20 years faster on the street. As this population grows, so does their healthcare bill.
“We are willing to spend all these resources for modest improvements, but we can’t seem to get people housed, and the difference between someone who is housed and not housed is so profound,” Kushel said.
Kushel’s team at UCSF found people who become homeless after age 50 buck some bad stereotypes. Most led conventional lives, as opposed to those who became chronically homeless before age 50–that population is more likely to have difficult childhoods, mental health issues, and problems with substance abuse.
For the newly homeless later in life, Kushel says it’s mainly an affordable housing issue.
“It feels really unsolvable because we’re kind of talking about the wrong thing,” Kushel said. By talking about the wrong thing, she means we’re not talking enough about deeply affordable housing.
Affordable housing is a term we throw around a lot. Generally, it applies to people making 50-60% of the area median income, or AMI. In Oakland for one person, that means making less than $52,080 a year. Deeply affordable housing targets people making less than 30% of AMI, or less than $26,040 a year.
Every year, the U.S. loses 10,000-15,000 units of public housing for the extremely low income. Between 2000 and 2016, the federal budget for this type of housing was cut in half, so you would be extremely lucky to qualify for this scarce resource.
“What you have is this really cruel game of musical chairs where there’s 100 households lined up and only 22 units of housing that they could possibly afford in any way. That is a policy crisis that has been years in the making,” Kushel said.
The wait list for section 8 in Oakland hasn’t been open since 2011. 1,600 people are still waiting for vouchers. For public housing, 8,200 applicants are waiting and for project based vouchers, 36,576 applicants are waiting.
“So of course, if there’s a group of the population losing out or competing for a scarce resource, it’s not at all surprising that people with mental health problems fall into homelessness,” Kushel said.
In the meantime, we wonder why people like Earl Pratt are working around city policies, building their own makeshift communities with made up addresses and running bandit businesses. He has nowhere else to go. He has some family left here, a daughter and son who he won’t ask for help.
His family doesn’t know where he is now.
“I chose not to be a burden to anyone,” Pratt said.
So instead of spending his golden years slowing down, Pratt is spiraling, as are so many of Oakland’s seniors on the street.
“It’s just a devastating situation,” Kushel said.
“We’re humans and we just have a hard time or bad luck,” Pratt said.
Pratt is from here, his family is here and he has deep ties to Oakland. Kushel found 70% of Bay Area homeless have deep roots here, which is a much higher percentage than the housed population.