‘Where are the golden years? Where’s the fun?’ ask seniors facing homelessness

Photo by Jenny Hamel

The Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority recently reported that the total number of homeless people in L.A. County fell since last year, but they also discovered a disturbing trend. The only group in L.A. that is experiencing homelessness more than last year is people age 62 and over.

One reason for this increase is that the baby boomer generation is growing into old age and some of them are chronically homeless. But the much bigger part of the story is this: seniors with fixed incomes are simply not able to to keep up with LA’s rising cost of housing.

Experts in LA are all noticing this trend.

“There is a significant increase of first time homeless – meaning people who are falling into homelessness, they’ve never been homeless before. They’re seniors and it’s simply due to affordability,” said Brandi Orton, Director of Government Relations and Advocacy with St. Barnabas Senior Services and the Los Angeles Aging Advocacy Coalition. “The elephant in the room that people are not talking about is the fact that we have a lot of non-special needs people, meaning they’re not a veteran, they don’t fall under mental health services act dollars so they can’t access that, they’re just poor or income vulnerable. That’s it. So they can’t access any of the things that we have available to them. And the elephant in the room is these folks need a subsidy.”

“I think it’s dire. I think that this isn’t something that has happened overnight. I think it’s been slowly building over the years,” said Emilio Salas, Deputy Executive Director of the Community Development Commission/Housing Authority of the County of Los Angeles. “And it’s primarily, from my perspective, due to the fact that we simply don’t have enough affordable housing stock. There’s simply lack of supply. So with a lack of supply you’re going to see rental prices spike and surge substantially.”

“Last year over 50 percent of the individuals that we served in Los Angeles were 55 and older,” said Jennifer Hark Dietz, the Executive Director of PATH, a homeless services provider. “And we’ve really seen this increase dramatically in our interim beds which is our short term bed and they’re they’re coming often out of the hospital. So they’re losing their home, ending up hospitalized for a variety of physical illnesses and they don’t have anywhere to go.”

Five seniors reflect on facing homelessness, living on the streets and fighting to stay in their homes.

Ninfa Cook, 60

Photo by Jenny Hamel

Ninfa Cook, 60, was diagnosed with breast cancer in February. After her surgery, she went through radiation and fell behind on her rent. She arrived home one day to find an eviction notice at her door. She had lived in that same apartment for 22 years.

“I’m looking at the oldest people outside, you know dwelling in corners and everything and I feel so bad. I said after all my my accomplishments, I’m going to end up being homeless. I felt like I have nothing. You know I’m worthless, like I cannot sleep.”

Cook’s case managers at St. Barnabas were able to find her a studio rented out by a Filipino couple in their 80s. They, too, could use the financial help.

Jesse Aliff, 77,  and his wife Roberta

Photo by Jenny Hamel

“Seniors are important too.” – Jesse Aliff

Jesse Aliff and his wife Roberta have lived in their Hollywood apartment for 20 years. Their fixed incomes have enabled them to afford their rent-controlled apartment. But now, their landlord is pressuring them to leave their apartment and has offered relocation fees. Jesse says he feels bullied. He also has to provide constant care for Roberta, who has Parkinson’s and his attempts to find affordable housing hasn’t been successful so far. “People are so funny. They say ‘Oh in your golden years, it’ll be fun and running and not worrying about a thing.’ Where are the golden years? Where’s the fun? They don’t tell you about the aches and the pains.”

Dayna Catchings, 66

Photo by Jenny Hamel

Dayna Catchings is a transgender woman who became homeless after being evicted from her Los Angeles apartment. She spent almost two years on the street and said her biggest complaint was how she was treated by law enforcement and officials. “People don’t realize, wait a minute this could be me. Yes, I’m in my house now. I’m able to go to the bathroom or maybe go to my stove and cook, I’m able to do this. I can watch TV in my house. Yeah, but what if you didn’t have that tomorrow. What would you do?”

But Dayna also says her experience living in tents on the streets made her stronger. “I learned to survive with very little. And I learned to appreciate that which I had and I learned to respect those who respect me even more, because I was out there among them.”

Robert Rodriguez, 82

Photo by Jenny Hamel

Robert Rodriguez, 82, joined a renters’ strike with the other tenants in his apartment building, assisted by the L.A. Tenants Union. The tenants were claiming that their landlord is a “slumlord” who doesn’t maintain the building and is still raising the rent. Robert said he’d be without hot water for days at a time, and his elevator didn’t work for a month and a half, but still he can’t afford to move elsewhere. Minutes before this picture was taken, he was in a courtroom for the first time in his life. A jury had just ruled that his landlord was within her legal right to evict him and his wife because they had not paid their rent. The three previous tenants who were part of the strike won their cases. Rodriguez said he’ll appeal.

He says despite the jury’s decision, he’s still happy that he participated in the strike because without it he would not have discovered the camaraderie and closeness between his neighbors.

“I don’t know what’s going to happen. What I’m going to do or what the future holds. I’m just wishing to somehow get more affordable housing. We definitely need more affordable housing. We can’t have these units where I live in wanting the same rent as brand new ones downtown”

Steve Hromada, 56

Photo by Jenny Hamel

Steve Hromada recently moved into the NoHo Senior Villas, an affordable housing complex run by PATH. Hromada lived on the streets for years and says there were many dark days.

“Don’t judge everyone. Not everyone is panhandling to get drugs which is an extreme misnomer, some I’m sure do. But for the most part it was just to have a little extra money when you woke up in the morning, so you weren’t depressed as hell.”