Older women facing 'silent epidemic' of homelessness

A look into making sure older citizens don't become homeless in Seattle.

SEATTLE — It is being called "the silent epidemic." Our older generation, struggling to stay in their homes;  others simply forced out onto the street as the cost of living just keeps going up.

Just this morning Seattle business leaders and the mayor herself met to discuss solutions for homelessness. But those already working to find housing for older people say the situation is dire.

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They say there is a problem for older women in particular because they often can't work or haven't ever worked. And in the most extreme cases, they are ending up living outdoors.

"Did you ever imagine you would be in this position?" Loretta was asked.

"No, I didn't," she said. "I feel really bad because I have seen homeless before."

The tears come unbidden. Loretta stood outside a box that passes for her home not far from the railroad tracks. She is one of the homeless people she once judged.

"Not realizing that, you know, it's hard," she said, wiping her eye. "It's sad."

She was married for 30 years until she says she was forced to leave. She has been living on the street for six long years.

"I had never really had to ask for help before," she said. "And I just don't really know how to do it."

According to All Home, which counts the homeless in King County, there are more than 11,600 people who have no home. Six percent of them are 61 or older, about 700 people. And no one knows how many of them are women.

"It's a silent epidemic," said Denise Malm, social worker. "It's invisible."

Malm spends her days at the Wallingford Community Senior Center trying to prevent women with limited resources from becoming homeless.

"Women have not had the same resources as men often," she said. "When it comes to paying into Social Security, when it comes to a career so on and so forth. And they outlive their husbands."

Moreover, the skyrocketing cost of housing in Seattle is hitting them when they can least afford it.

"I mean a studio apartment now is running $2,000 to $3,000 a month in the Central Area," said Charlotte Ann Jacobs.

Jacobs is a social worker at Catholic Community Service. She says the issue is even worse for older African-American women who are competing for housing in their traditional neighborhood with the young and affluent.

"It seems like the neighborhoods are becoming more catered to them, in a sense, because of the jobs that they have," Jacobs said. "And they can afford it."

Loretta says she, too, can't afford much.

"Just a cheap little place, you know," she said. "That's all I'm really asking for."

It turns out that is not so simple a request. The waiting list for subsidized housing in Seattle, even for seniors, is one to five years.

Those who work to find housing say they believe the solution is a shelter for older adults. They sent a letter to the previous mayor and Seattle City Council asking for help but nothing came of it.

Now they are meeting individually with their council members, hoping to make the case.