According to a study of Canadian homeless shelters, over 8.3% of shelter users are 55 and over and tend to have longer shelter stays compared to younger adults. Seniors can become homeless for a variety of reasons, including the lack of income to pay for housing (low government assistance, insufficient pensions, low wages and/or savings), the shortage of affordable and secure housing, deteriorating physical and mental health, a relationship breakdown and/or suffering from violence and abuse. The risk of homelessness for seniors can also be increased by the death of a spouse, social isolation, discrimination, or a lack of awareness of available benefits and services.
A case study on a homelessness intervention program for elderly people found that the complex care of seniors was best addressed through having one service provider to coordinate all of their needs. One study calls for senior-focused services that concentrate on physical disabilities, mental health, mobility supports, transportation, finances and elder abuse while respecting seniors’ autonomy, dignity and privacy. Another study provides a comprehensive list of recommendations for shelters and service providers including program design considerations and operational suggestions such as:
- Creating space ownership in shelters and in community facilities among seniors
- Hiring diverse staff members
- Supporting community engagement of seniors
- Designing a housing framework
- Understanding self-determination, independence and choice
In addition, there has been increased interest in adapting Housing First as a recovery-oriented approach to ending homelessness. Housing First involves providing people who are homeless with tailored services and supports to move them into independent and permanent housing. In 2014, the Government of Canada released the Action for Seniors report promising $600 million over five years for the Homelessness Partnering Strategy towards implementing the Housing First approach, along with continued investments to meet the needs of vulnerable groups such as seniors. This is a critical step forward as the literature on homelessness from the past ten years advocates for Housing First as a realistic, humane and effective service delivery model to ending homelessness.
As the shelter population ages, service providers and policymakers will need to better determine how to address seniors’ mental health needs, including depression, dementia, Alzheimer’s, delusional disorders, and delirium, which are the most common mental illnesses amongst seniors in Canada. The complexity of elder care requires the development of effective preventative interventions on one hand and service provision for homeless seniors on the other.