Homeless elderly woman in San Francisco.

A homeless elderly woman in San Francisco. Photo by Franco Folini. Creative Commons license.

At 66, I went through breast cancer while homeless, and I’m far from alone.

by CeliaSue Hecht

Growing up in middle class America, home is one of those things I took for granted. Today I’m homeless. Now, I am still a human being. Like you, to survive, I eat, sleep, drink water, breathe, use the restroom and take a shower. I also make mistakes, feel pain and hurt, sadness, depression, grief, anger, fear, happiness, love and hope.

Growing up in New York, I saw bag ladies pushing shopping carts in the city. I was warned that if I did not finish school, get married, or work a good job, I could end up like them.

Flash forward: Being aged, female and without a home now makes my life impossible. Last year, I needed surgery for breast cancer — and I had no home before, during and after the procedure. Facing my own mortality at the age of 66 has been devastating.

Bad things happen in life, like the recent crash of the economy. It hit many over 50 especially hard. They lost everything: their jobs, their homes, their retirement savings. Everyone can face economic catastrophe.

Senior women are the most vulnerable. We require sleep, dignity, privacy, compassion and housing. More than half of all seniors in the USA are living in poverty and cannot afford housing, according to the American Association of Retired Persons.

Skyrocketing rents, low wages and more contribute to increased rates of homelessness among older women. We live longer, make less money and receive less in Social Security benefits. We are living in cars, on the streets, in tents. Unless a woman has family to take care of her, has paid off her home and has $3,000 to $8,000 a month to pay for assisted living, she is likely to become homeless. With rents more than three or five times our meager checks, where are we supposed to live? Isn’t this elder abuse?

Kelli Keane, 83 years old, slept in her van for three years.

“Every homeless advocate and shelter monitor I spoke with told me the older homeless population in San Francisco is exploding. The problem is bound to get worse as the price of housing reaches new heights,” Keane says.

Many homeless women have a history of being abused and/or molested.

Some women leave their homes due to domestic violence, while others stay in violent situations to avoid homelessness. One rape happens every 107 seconds in the USA, more than 322,230 a year, a sixth of rapes get reported and 12 percent of rapes reported resulted in jail sentences, according to a 2000 U.S. Department of Justice report. One in four women experience violence in relationships and they often encounter doubt from police when they report it.

“I have looked into the question of lies and rapes, and you know who lies about rape incessantly? Rapists. Which is an insanely obvious a thing to say, except that no one ever says it, ” says Bay Area writer Rebecca Solnit.

“This (distrust and not believing women) is part of the reason why it took an entire high school football team full of women for some of us to finally just consider that Bill Cosby might not be Cliff Huxtable,” says Damion Young.

“Survivors are so often rendered invisible, feeling they cannot or should not speak,” John Pavlovitz writes.

Because when they do they are not believed, shamed, blamed and accused of asking for it. So women suffer in silence for years.

Thankfully, there are many creative solutions to housing women without homes.

A 10 year old Washington girl, Hailey Fort, is building tiny homes and giving them away. The cities of Austin, Texas and Eugene and Portland in Oregon, along with the states of Washington, Michigan, New York, Tennessee, and other places have created tiny home villages for people without homes.

Tiny-home builder Elvis Summers sat in Mayor Garcetti’s office in Los Angeles, California, the homeless capital of the USA. Garcetti’s last homeless policy director said, “[We] don’t give a damn about the homeless, it’s not our top priority.”

Smokie McGee, Summers’ neighbor, was sleeping in the dirt. Summers built her a tiny home and his video went viral.  Since then, Summers has built 37 tiny 6- by 8-foot houses, which cost $1,200 each.

The homes were confiscated by the city and McGee ended up in the hospital in critical condition, while a homeless veteran and his wife were robbed and the wife was brutally raped. Without a locked door and safe shelter, life is brutal. The homes were eventually returned — in damaged condition. These homes are meant to be an interim, temporary solution.

“I am committed to helping the homeless,” Summers said.

Society’s most vulnerable people are also more likely to be homeless.

There are 1.6 million homeless Americans nationwide. The majority are moms with children, seniors, veterans and working poor. Some become mentally ill or addicted to drugs or alcohol from sleep deprivation. They’re banned from society and blamed for their dire circumstances.

Still, we know how to solve homelessness: giving people homes. Studies show that housing the homeless saves taxpayers money. A new study conducted by San Francisco’s Budget and Legislative Analyst’s Office tracked 1,818 homeless adults as they entered housing; expenses declined by $31.5 million, or 56 percent. Jail costs dropped from $1.6 million to $580,000, a 64 percent decline.

Why aren’t more cities providing homes for homeless seniors?

“A lot of people are making money off the poor,” writes Thomas B. Edsall.

Shelters are a costly alternative to permanent housing. And shelters don’t provide for the unique needs of elderly women with health issues.

Besides predatory payday loans, higher prices and scams, too many nonprofits who are supposed to be supplying services to homeless women spend more money on buildings, salaries and expenses than on housing.

Despite the problems, creative solutions are the answer. Building cost-effective women’s tiny home villages, apartments, RV parks and/or hotels must be part of the solution. Dying without a home because you lost your home should not happen to anyone — specially not to senior women.

CeliaSue Hecht is a journalist and dog travel expert who writes and edits on topics ranging from angels to zen, dogs and travel. You can find more of her writing on her blog

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