The Greying Streets of New York

It was a cold winter morning and Agnes Meyers waited in line outside a soup kitchen in the Lower East Side. Meyers is 69-years-old and homeless. The city’s most vulnerable population, the homeless, is greying as the number of older New Yorkers living on the streets or in shelters is growing.  “I worked all my life, but somehow it wasn’t enough,” says Meyers.

Meyers lives in a shelter in the Bronx, after her landlord asked her to leave her apartment in Brooklyn. “I couldn’t pay him the rent anymore. I have no savings. He was nice man; he let me stay for three months without paying the rent. But now I have no home”

Her story is not unusual.

The recent available numbers by NYC Department of Homeless Services say the citywide shelter population is 46,036, including 26,503 adults, aged 65 and over, residing each night in the shelters, 29 percent increase from last year. Those who work with the homeless say it is a disturbing trend worsened by the economic crisis the nation is faced with.

Robert Speck sleeps on W 41st Street
Robert Speck sleeps on W 41st Street

“The economy has been horrible in the last couple of years,” said Matt Krivich, Director of Operations, Bowery Mission, the city’s oldest rescue operation, serving New York’s homeless population since 1879. “Since then, we have witnessed higher number of people coming in, including a lot of seniors, for meals and services.”

Krivich goes on to say that most of these seniors are literate, clean, and not like most of the homeless elders that Bowery Mission served ten years ago.

Robert Stack, 73, is also one such adult, who like Meyers worked most of his life but now lives in a shelter in the Lower East Side.

“ I didn’t know all my money would run out so soon.” said Stack, “I thought I had saved enough but life is very hard here [ in New York], if you don’t make a lot of money. You lose everything.”

Stack worked in multiple jobs in the construction industry till the age of 62 when he had to quit due to health issues. He never married, has no family, and was living alone till three years ago, which is when his savings ran out and, just like Meyers, he was forced to move out of his home and into a facility for senior homeless.

Stack is not someone who would be usually thought of as homeless. Neither is Meyers. They are the elderly homeless – in many cases, literate, and well-educated people – who have worked many years, owned homes and led lives that were anything but marginal. Then, through eviction, or some other means, they lost their homes.

“I would characterize them as the ‘economic’ homeless,” says Karen Jorgenson, the director of the Valley Lodge shelter on the Upper West Side.

Jorgenson, who has run the only shelter in the city for older New Yorkers since 1988, said that in the last decade she has seen a rise in elder homeless in New York City and that today’s elderly homeless are different than what the city experienced in the late 1980s.

“In my almost 24 years at Valley Lodge, I have seen a great change in the background of folks coming into the shelter system,” she shares. She said that “in the early days” homelessness was either a result of mental-health issues, alcohol, or drug problems, whereas today it is increasingly an effect of the housing crunch and unaffordable rental rates in the city.

Funded by the city’s Department of Homeless Services and run by the Westside Federation for Senior and Supportive Housing, the 92-bed transitional shelter provides more than just a meal and a bed. It also runs a home-sharing program for seniors who have some form of income but cannot afford to live by themselves. Through this program, seniors sharing common interest or compatible characteristics are housed together. This way the rent is shared; becomes more affordable and also gives these elderly an opportunity to avoid depression, which is a natural consequence of aging in isolation along with the perpetual hunt for a stable roof overhead.

over-43000-new-yorkers-had-to-use-homeless-shelters-this-past-april-an-all-time-high-its-also-an-incredible-increase-from-just-five-years-ago

Many who work with the elderly homeless in the city still cite mental illness as being the leading factors behind this specific growth, but they have witnessed many seniors seeking shelter due to sudden eviction or because their rents were not equating their incomes.

“I still see a lot of new homeless elders at my facility who are suffering from mental illnesses and cannot make it on their own.  But just like this financial crisis has impacted all of us, it has sadly affected the elderly population in the worst possible way,” reiterates Tara Rullo, Director of Project ORE, which is an Educational Alliance mission located in the East Village, that provides kosher meals and community for isolated impoverished Jewish adults aged 60 and above. “These are those individuals who lived alone for many years, have no one else to rely on and nowhere else to go. In the last couple of years, we have helped house a lot of seniors who found themselves without a home in New York because they were behind in paying the rent and just couldn’t make ends meet.”

There is a likelihood that this trend may not lessen any time soon. With the constant hike in living expenses in New York, many seniors currently living in the comfort of their homes fear they will join the homeless category soon.

“These days we have older people coming in all the time and saying, ‘I’m worried that the rent is going up and my income is not. What can I do? I’m afraid I’ll get evicted,’” says Oscar Strauss III, the Director of the Elderly Project, one of the ventures of ‘Volunteers of Legal Service’ operating in Downtown, New York.

The “Elderly Project” at the Volunteers of Legal Services are a group of lawyers, based in downtown Manhattan, who work with the senior citizens of New York. They provide them with legal assistance and advice in areas such as health laws and housing, or point them in the appropriate direction so they can seek the necessary help.

“If we feel they require assistance in specific areas, we refer them to the right agencies,” Strauss adds.

There are also a number of housing and legal aid agencies in the city that help seniors freeze their rents according to the State’s guidelines. They assist these individuals in filing applications and completing other necessary procedures for doing so.

According to the RGB (Rent Guidelines Board) of New York, rent control covers about 40,000 apartments in New York occupied largely by an elderly from low-income population to secure them from homelessness. The upper limit for rent in these apartments is 2,500 dollars.

The elderly tenant wishing to freeze their rents should begin by calling the hot line set up for inquiries about the city’s Scrie (Senior Citizens’ Rent Increase Exemption program), as it’s called. The number is: (212)-240-7000. If it’s busy or there is no reply, Joseph Barnes, director of benefits and entitlement for the department, suggests calling (212)-442-1000, the general referral number for the department.

After preliminary discussion, the applicant will be mailed a form and asked to supply supporting documents, such as a lease showing current rent and proof of age and income. The form must be returned to the department at 150 William Street, N.Y. 10038.

Through these proactive approaches, many senior citizens can be saved from homelessness and also from adding to the number of older homeless.

Whereas to cope with the current rise in the elder homeless population, Mayor Bloomberg’s administration plans to open at least five new shelters by the end of this year, expanding the number of new shelters that have opened since May to 15, according to an official announcement made by the Department of Homeless Services last month.

Each of these shelters has a number of beds allotted for the homeless seniors and out of the five new ones; two shelters will be only for single adults with another 234 beds.

“The more the better,” says Robert Speck, 69, who has been switching between living on the streets and living in shelters for the last six years. “We all need a warm bed and a clean place to sleep at night.”