Homeless Age Faster

Studies show there are a growing number of homeless people around the age of 50. But it's common for them to experience illnesses and injuries more common among people well beyond their age. Host Michel Martin speaks with NPR correspondent, Pam Fessler and homeless advocate, Tony Simmons, about the rising number of aging homeless.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We'd like to take a look now at an issue that if you look carefully you probably see right in front of you. If there is a problem of homelessness where you happen to live, the people you see are more likely than ever to be older. We're talking about people who are 40 and 50 years old and older. Most consider that to be middle age, but that's not the case when you live on the streets.

Today we're seeing more and more homeless people in that age range who have illnesses and ailments that are normally associated with the elderly. That's because the stress of finding everyday needs like food and shelter, as well as other hazards of being homeless, have a terrible effect on health.

NPR correspondent Pam Fessler has been in Baltimore reporting on this and here's a clip.

TONY SIMMONS: You can actually go in the building and put in an application.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Put an application.

SIMMONS: And here's a trick. Always look at the mailbox. If you see eviction notices, then these apartments are available. It's a bad way to look for it, but that's how I find them.

MARTIN: That's the voice of Tony Simmons. He's 51 years old. He's a former Marine. You can hear the confidence in his voice. He's giving advice here to a couple who are looking for a place to stay. He's become an advocate with Health Care for the Homeless in Baltimore, but Tony Simmons still doesn't have a permanent place to live himself. He is here, along with NPR's Pam Fessler, in our Washington, D.C. studios to tell us more.

Welcome to the program. Thank you both so much for joining us.

SIMMONS: Oh, you're welcome.

PAM FESSLER, BYLINE: Thank you.

MARTIN: So Pam Fessler, first of all, I'll just ask how you got started on this story, investigating what it's like to be both homeless and older.

FESSLER: Well, I've been covering homelessness for about five years now and I've been hearing anecdotally that people are seeing more and more older homeless people and were very concerned about what this means and then there's been some new research that shows, in fact, that we are seeing more homeless adults.

MARTIN: How many homeless people are in the country, are in this range of what we would call aging, older?

FESSLER: Well, right. Of course nobody actually knows the specific numbers. It's very hard to count the homeless, but the latest estimates are that about half of single homeless adults are age 47 and older. That's about 200,000 people on any given night. And as you mentioned, you know, this is an age that we might not think of as being older, but when you're homeless, being in your 50s actually is old and part of that is the life expectancy for chronically homeless people is only 64, which is well below the average for other people.

MARTIN: Can you give us a sense of why that is? Why is it? I mean maybe it's intuitively obvious, but for people who've never had this experience, never really thought about it, what are some of the reasons that would contribute to this wear and tear on the body and to what you call premature aging?

FESSLER: Well, it's just a very tough life. I mean there's a lot of stress trying to find a place to sleep, trying to make sure that you have food, just trying to figure out what's going to happen day-to-day, and you're talking about people who often are exposed to the elements for very long periods of time, either the extreme cold or the extreme heat. When I was up in Baltimore, it was very cold. I mean my fingers were numb after about 30 minutes being outside with people, and then people who are on their feet for hours causes a lot of circulatory problems, serious foot and leg ailments.

It's also hard to have a good diet when you're homeless. You're sort of at the mercy of others and a lot of the food that you receive, even at soup kitchens, as well-meaning as they might be, very heavy on the starch. Things that, you know, as you're aging, our doctors are telling us, you know, you shouldn't be eating this kind of diet, but that's what they're exposed to all the time.

MARTIN: Tony Simmons, why don't you tell us a little bit more, if you don't mind? Does this ring true to you?

SIMMONS: Oh, yes. This rings very true. See, most shelters, you can't stay in there by day and you're not allowed to leave your belongings behind, so people are carrying two or three bags in their hand, maybe a backpack on their shoulder and you're on your feet anywhere between 16 and 18 hours. You're standing up all the time. You've got all this pressure on your legs. I, myself, have fluid in both legs, so every night I have to go to bed, I have to elevate my legs in the air and, if anybody knows about fluid, it hurts. It hurts a lot.

MARTIN: And this wasn't the case before you became homeless, before you lost your full time home?

SIMMONS: Oh, no. Before I became homeless, I didn't suffer from hypertension. I wasn't diabetic and I didn't have fluid in my legs and, like Pam said, it comes from your diet. You're hungry. You're going to eat whether it's good for you or not.

MARTIN: Can I ask you - if you don't mind my asking you, how is it that you are without a permanent home?

SIMMONS: Well, when I was arrested in 2009 and 2010 and I served a brief time and I was released in 2011 and, basically, I didn't want to know if - should I go home or should I not go home? You know, you get this doubt in your mind because I already lost my fiancee and my children moved away at the time and I didn't want to burden my sisters and brothers and I figure - OK. Just give me a week to think about it and I'll be back home. That week turned into 15 months later.

But I must admit - and this was just for me - it has been rewarding because it taught me a valuable lesson that life cannot be taken for granted because anything that you have can be taken away from you in a moment. In a blink of an eye, it can all be gone, but I was one of the lucky ones. I had a solid foundation waiting on me. I just had to find it.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, we are talking about the rising population of homeless people who are older. I'm speaking with Tony Simmons. He's from Baltimore. He's been living in Baltimore and doesn't have permanent housing at the moment. He's also become, as he's told us, an advocate for the homeless. And also NPR's Pam Fessler, who's been reporting on this.

Pam, can you talk a little bit about what's contributed to this particular group of folks being without permanent housing?

FESSLER: Well, it's interesting. It's not that we're seeing a lot of new older people becoming homeless, although there, in fact, are some, you know, obviously because of the recession. A lot of this is based on research by a professor at University of Pennsylvania, Dennis Culhane, and what he has found is that there is this whole group of people and the late baby boomers, people who were born between 1955 and 1965, and he found out that they tend to be much more likely to be homeless than other people in other age groups and that this has been all along, in their 20s, in their 30s and 40s. And you can actually trace them and now they're getting older and that's why we're seeing this big bubble of people in their 50s who are homeless.

MARTIN: Why is that?

FESSLER: And it's - so Culhane says it's because a lot of them came to age in the late '70s and early '80s. We had two back-to-back recessions. Jobs were very tight and then we had the crack cocaine epidemic at the same time and these factors - for some people, they never got on track. They never got their lives on track, so some of them have been in and out of homelessness all of their lives.

MARTIN: Tony, how does that sound to you? I mean, do you feel that, in your case, the major factor in your situation being as it is today - is the drugs the symptom or is it the cause?

SIMMONS: In my case, I was injured on a job and I took the job to court and I lost, but I suffered torn muscles in my back, dislocated my right shoulder and my hip and I couldn't find work, but one thing about this life - drug dealers will always give you a job. First time out, a guy came up to me and said, you know what? I'll give you $5,000. All I want you to do is drive a car from Baltimore to Virginia. You park the car and you leave.

See, what I need people to understand is, at the time, I had a fiancee. I had two sons in college. I had bills. I had a car and I had to find a way of keeping a roof over their heads, but I ended up opening up that Pandora's box and then I became addicted to heroin. So, now, I've got to fight two problems, keeping a roof over my family's head and fighting a drug addiction at the same time.

And then I got caught and I remember being in my cell and I'm saying - praying my prayers. I'm like, Lord, if you get me out of this one, where will you want me to go? And this is where I shall go. And I ended up going to court. Due to a technicality, they threw it out of court, so that's what led me to the shelter. That's what led me to being an advocate because I feel now that I have to pay back the harm that I caused my - and the hurt that I caused people.

MARTIN: Well, thanks for sharing that with us and thanks for telling...

SIMMONS: Oh, any time.

MARTIN: ...your story. Pam Fessler, can I give you the final word here? What other things do you think, on a policy level, would be helpful?

FESSLER: Well, one of the things that some people think might help will be the expansion of Medicaid coverage to single adults, poor adults, which - they're not covered now and this is a lot of the homeless. Under the new Affordable Health Care Act, they will be covered. As you know, that will only be in some states, but that might help, in fact, some of these people to seek out medical care when problems are small, before they get really big and then they end up in the emergency room costing millions and millions of dollars to the system.

The other thing is just to find permanent housing for people, to get them off the streets and into permanent housing and lots of studies have been done that show that it's actually less expensive for communities and the government to house homeless people - even if it's with services like counseling or health care - than it is to keep them out in the street.

MARTIN: That was Pam Fessler. She's a correspondent for NPR who focuses on poverty and philanthropy. She was here with us in our Washington, D.C. studios along with Tony Simmons who often teams up with the group, Health Care for the Homeless. He doesn't have permanent housing himself at the moment, but we're going to keep a good thought for you, Tony Simmons.

Thank you so much for joining us.

SIMMONS: You're welcome. Thank you very much for having me.

FESSLER: Thank you.

MARTIN: To hear Pam's series in full, you can head to our website, NPR.org.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: Coming up, if you're like me and, somehow, your tickets to the hottest cultural happening on this side of the Atlantic right now got lost in the mail - I'm talking about South by Southwest - we'll bring you up to speed on how things are going there.

FELIX CONTRERAS, BYLINE: As the music industry splinters and tries to regroup and redesign a business model in a way that has leveled the playing field for a lot of the Indie artists and South by Southwest is principally an outlet for independent bands.

MARTIN: The latest sounds from Austin. That's coming up on TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: Decades of advocacy have done little to change the stark racial disparities in the nation's prisons, but a new study shows it's happening anyway. A dramatic drop in the number of African-Americans locked up in the last decade. We take a look at the latest numbers and what's behind them next time on TELL ME MORE.

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