Hard times–whether from health problems, job loss, addiction or family strife–can happen to anyone, but for hundreds of older adults in Long Beach, falling on hard times has meant having no place to live, maybe even being on the streets.

“This is supposed to be the golden years, you know, retirement,” said Theresa Dunbar, 70, who moved into Gold Star Manor in West Long Beach in March, after years of bouncing between staying with relatives and in motels. “They weren’t very golden.”

As of the city’s last homeless count in January, more than 500 people like Dunbar—seniors age 65 and older—had no permanent home, nearly double the number of unhoused residents in that age group in 2022. This year’s count also tallied 800-some homeless seniors in the 55-to-64 bracket, up about 23% from the previous year.

Statistics for most of the rest of Los Angeles County and all of California show similar growth trends, according to the state’s homeless data website. And the same is true nationally; adults 50 and older made up 11% of the single homeless population in 1990, and by 2020 they were about half, as noted in an article from that year in the American Society on Aging’s journal.

As to what’s driving the trend, experts point to the usual suspects: the high cost of housing, in particular, and poverty, in general.

For Dunbar, the trigger was a bad divorce in the late 1990s.

“I just wanted out,” she said. “I didn’t ask for anything.”

She went to stay with one of her brothers for a few years, then she got sick and was in the hospital; after that one of her daughters, who was living in a motel, took her in, but, she said, family “can’t take care of you forever.”

Struggling to get help

“There is a huge lack of affordable housing for older people,” said Caroline Cicero, who teaches gerontology at USC. “Definitely older people who are living on a fixed income are at risk.”

Housing costs were what did it for Steve Stewart, 60, who has lived in Long Beach for more than 20 years and was homeless for most of them.

He used to take jobs with moving companies, he said, but “the rent was so high out here, it landed me outside anyways.”

Now Stewart is trying to manage COPD, heart disease and a hip that needs replacement.

For seniors on the verge of homelessness, health issues often lead to medical bills, which can push some people over the edge. Or they may lose their job and find it hard to get another one, or their spouse or partner dies and they’re suddenly facing heightened expenses on a single income, Long Beach Homeless Services Bureau Manager Paul Duncan said.

And being unhoused on the street is riskier for older people, whose bodies have a reduced ability to regulate their temperature, so heat waves and cold spells can have a bigger impact, Cicero said.

An uncertain housing situation can make it hard to keep up with medications or manage chronic health issues. Recent data from the Los Angeles County coroner showed the average age of death for unsheltered people, even after taking out overdoses and accidents, was around 53, Duncan said.

Those who’ve tried to get help through “the system” and some who work within it agree it can be difficult to navigate the maze of government agencies, nonprofits, paperwork and waitlists to get housing.

Stewart considers the city’s homeless service hub, the Multi-Service Center, “a joke” and said people using it have to deal with lost paperwork and service workers who won’t go the extra mile with things like helping struggling people remember appointments.

Dunbar, who used to be a back-office nurse in a doctor’s office before going on disability with diabetes and lung issues, had gone through four case managers when she connected with Imelda Bealer at Lutheran Social Services in Long Beach.

Theresa Dunbar, 70, shows off a wall full of family pictures inside her new apartment at Gold Star Manor in West Long Beach. Wednesday, May 10, 2023. Photo by Brandon Richardson.

Some agencies are understaffed, and people may have to pursue many leads to make progress. About at her wits’ end, Dunbar found a business card she’d gotten from Lutheran Social Services and decided to email them. Someone responded right away, and with the nonprofit’s help, she got into a lottery for housing vouchers; about 3,000 other people had also applied, Bealer said.

“I think right now the system in place is very confusing for people who don’t know homeless services” and aren’t sure how to advocate for themselves, Bealer said.

Signs of hope?

While the number of unhoused seniors will likely continue to climb as the U.S. population ages—the state has predicted the number of California residents over 60 will more than double by 2060—there are some glimmers of hope in Long Beach.

City officials said four new developments with a total of 210 units specifically for people with housing vouchers will be opening by early next year, including a 40-unit project just for seniors.

Other homes for low-income residents are also being proposed, including a 157-unit development for seniors, and most newer projects in the Downtown area include at least a few affordable units to meet a new city requirement.

To address some of the other needs of unhoused seniors, Duncan said the city plans to hire more nurses and is looking to start a recuperative care program, so homeless people of all ages will have somewhere to go when they leave the hospital but still need additional support. The city is also expecting to roll out a mobile mental health treatment van to serve people on the street later this year.

And Stewart, after more than 20 years unhoused, was able to get sober and stay that way while still on the street. His friend, homeless advocate Christine Barry, helped him find an apartment that would take his voucher.

He’s happy with his new life but longs to help others the way Barry helped him, he said.

“I still have that part of me that wishes a lot more people were able to come inside like me,” Stewart said.

Dunlap loves her new apartment, which is decorated with photos of her large family, including three daughters and the grandkids she’s excited to be able to entertain at home.

“Being able to have Thanksgiving dinner for them, and let them come over and get into the refrigerator when they want to, you know,” she said. “Just stuff like that. Just being Grandma.”