Thousands of California seniors are ‘one disaster away’ from homelessness. What can the state do?

In 2013, Madlynn Johnson had her own apartment and a steady job. A car accident changed everything.

Her job gave her months off work. She drained her savings. She couldn’t catch up on rent and other bills. Depression took hold.

In 2014, she lost her housing in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Nationally, Johnson was one of the 40,000 people age 65 and older who were homeless in 2017, according to a study by researchers in Los Angeles, New York and Boston. That number is expected to nearly triple by 2030.

Homelessness experts say California’s low-income seniors are especially vulnerable because of the state’s housing affordability crisis: With fixed income and high rent prices, an illness or job loss can quickly put them on the streets.

The state already accounts for about a quarter of the nation’s homeless population, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, and 69% of the 130,000 homeless Californians were unsheltered on a single night last year.

Even so, methods exist to prevent and reduce senior homelessness, said Sharon Cornu, executive director of St. Mary’s Center in Oakland, which provides services for adults 55 and older who are homeless or at risk of homelessness.

“As we get ready for generations with less retirement savings and lower incomes along the way, we need to be planning for the challenges that we’re going to face among senior populations,” Cornu said.
‘It’s been a real godsend’

For three years, Johnson lived in and out of her Honda Accord. She kept her wheelchair in the view of her window as she slept, or at least tried to rest when the fear of being assaulted didn’t keep her awake.

Finally, in October 2017, she moved into transitional housing for seniors at St. Mary’s Center. Johnson, now 73, sleeps in her own room and shares a kitchen and bathroom with others around her age.

“It’s been a real godsend,” she said.

But no landlord has accepted any of the about 100 rental applications Johnson said she has submitted with the support of case management at the center. With Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) and no pension – the mental health contract agency she worked for didn’t offer one – Johnson said it’s almost impossible to afford a place of her own in the county she has called home since 1965.

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