No one should ‘spend their golden years in a shelter’ — How Utah can stop the alarming spike of homeless seniors

Since at least 2017, the number of older Utahns experiencing homelessness has been on the rise.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Petie Hale brings food to a bunny she cares for at Wasatch Community Gardens' Green Phoenix Farm on Tuesday, Jan. 3, 2023. Hale, now 65, became part of a growing number of older Utahns experiencing homelessness.

For more than 20 years, Petie Hale held a steady job with the local union of stagehands, setting up concerts and conventions for artists and exhibitions coming through Salt Lake City.

It was reliable money, enough to afford the monthly rent to crash on a couch in a house downtown. Running the spotlight for Guns N’ Roses was just an added perk.

But in March 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic’s spread across the globe upended life in Utah and across the United States, Hale’s world — like so many others — crumbled.

“When you’ve got a job and you’re surviving, you’re not going without, and then, all of a sudden, boom,” she said, “you don’t have nothing and you can’t go to work, it’s bad.”

Hale, now 65, became part of a growing number of older Utahns experiencing homelessness. In 2021, state data showed 1,429 Beehive State residents 60 and older were considered “literally homeless” — a 34% jump from 2017.

For many older residents, Utah’s soaring cost of living left them out on the streets, experts say. For Hale, a global health emergency eroded a sense of stability.

Hale has experienced homelessness before but nothing like this. For six months, she had no income at all, nada, zilch, not even food stamps. She panhandled to get by.

“Basically, the pandemic cost me everything,” she said. “Everything. Everything.”

The eviction protections at the time weren’t much help. The nights of reliably having a roof over her head gave way to a stint in motel rooms, which gave way to sleeping in a Lincoln Navigator with her adult son and his girlfriend, which gave way to sleeping in tents near the railroad tracks just west of downtown.

And her story, sadly, is hardly unique.

What’s gone wrong for so many Utahns?

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Billy Ray Bratcher takes down his tent as Salt Lake City police clean up camps on Rio Grade Street in Salt Lake City on Monday, Dec. 26, 2022.

The number of seniors experiencing homelessness has steadily been on the rise, climbing each year since at least 2017. (Data for 2022 was not immediately available.)

Danny Harris, director of advocacy at AARP Utah, said his organization saw this coming, with modeling predicting a significant increase of evictions and homelessness in 2022.

The pandemic programs that kept many on their feet are winding down, he said, and now those years of unpaid bills are coming due.

“Eventually, the bills had to be paid,” he said, “and some of those people now, unfortunately, I think, are experiencing homelessness because of this.”

Rent prices in Utah, meanwhile, have skyrocketed, outpacing the rise in income for older residents.

According to a study by the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute, rents along the Wasatch Front grew as much between 2020 and 2022 as they did in the decade leading up to 2020.

For some homeowners, whose houses have long been paid off, Harris said, soaring property taxes have felt like a return to relentless mortgages.

To make those rent and tax payments, many older Utahns rely on benefits. Social Security checks, Harris said, make up at least 90% of the income for nearly a third of retirees in the Beehive State.

That boils down to a basic math problem, according to Bill Tibbitts, deputy executive director of Crossroads Urban Center. Because the average rent is higher than the average Social Security check, he said, seniors lack stable living quarters.

When the cost of living shoots up, Tibbitts said, the people closest to falling through the cracks include a growing number of Utahns 65 and older.

“When people think about homelessness, they don’t think about somebody’s grandma or grandpa who used to be able to pay the rent,” Tibbitts said, “but now, with the rent prices going up, they can’t.”

Making a dent in senior homelessness, Tibbitts said, depends on the availability of more housing options.

The need for more housing

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Petie Hale cuts at apple to feed the bunny she cares for at Wasatch Community Gardens' Green Phoenix Farm on Tuesday, Jan. 3, 2023.

Hale was living out of a tent when a chance encounter with former Salt Lake City Mayor Rocky Anderson over the summer sparked a shift in her living conditions.

Anderson, who is seeking to recapture his seat at City Hall and is campaigning heavily on homelessness issues, introduced Hale to officials from The Point, a low-income housing development at 2333 W. North Temple for seniors and veterans run by Switchpoint, a nonprofit homelessness services organization.

Last month, Hale moved into her new place, paying $450 a month with utilities included. It’s a price modest enough to be covered by the Social Security she started collecting last spring when she turned 65.

Many others, however, aren’t as fortunate. Waitlists for vouchers and housing, Harris said, are long.

“It’s very difficult for a lot of people to hang on by their fingernails,” Harris said, “waiting for their turn on a waiting list that seems to never end.”

Wayne Niederhauser, the state’s homelessness coordinator, said state and local officials are trying to boost the number of units available to seniors.

Niederhauser said the state is working with the Salt Lake Valley Coalition to End Homelessness on converting a hotel into a transitional housing development to serve aged, disabled and medically vulnerable residents.

“That’ll be designed to stabilize them in housing,” he said, “and then move them on to more permanent housing.”

The state also kicked in more than $10 million to Friends of Switchpoint last year to expand the offerings to seniors and veterans with a new project near Hale’s home at The Point.

Last month, the Salt Lake City Council approved a request by Mayor Erin Mendenhall’s administration to spend millions on investing in both the medically vulnerable transitional housing development and the new Switchpoint addition.

Tibbitts said creating more housing opportunities for seniors will ultimately lead to more people getting off the streets because many shelter beds are occupied by older Utahns whose income is unlikely to increase.

Funding those affordable options, he said, should be a priority.

“People shouldn’t work their whole lives,” Tibbitts said, “reach the point where they’re too old and they’ve got disabling conditions and they can’t work anymore, and spend their golden years in a shelter.”

Gov. Spencer Cox’s newly proposed budget includes $150 million for housing and homelessness services, with an additional $100 million in one-time spending to create an estimated 2,000 affordable units.

Harris, the AARP advocacy director, said policy solutions need to run the gamut to chip away at the threat of homelessness for older Utahns. Sure, that means more affordable housing, but it also means looking at expanding programs — like the state’s property tax circuit breaker and tax-deferral programs — that will help Utahns stay in their longtime homes if that’s where they choose to get older.

“If we don’t address these issues now,” Harris said, “they’re only going to get worse in the coming years.”

Finding a place for Petie Hale is just the beginning.

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