Number of Homeless Seniors on the Rise

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An elderly man sitting in a wheelchair on a city street, next to a tent that is his only home. A woman with an emergency room bracelet on her arm going through the trash at a local cafe looking for something to eat.

These images are heartbreaking, but are becoming increasingly common in our community.

According to the HUB, the county’s coordinated homeless entry system, the number of homeless seniors in Berkeley and Alameda County is steadily growing, from 23 percent at the end of 2016 to 36 percent in the first half of this year.

Some of the seniors (defined by county as those 55 or older) have been homeless for years, while others are the “new homeless” -- people who lost housing after losing employment, after their parents or partners died or those who can no longer work in manual labor due to age and health.

“It’s a failure of our society that we allow older folks to age on the streets,” says Brenda Goldstein, Director of Psychosocial Services at LifeLong Medical Care, which has a dedicated clinic for seniors. “We are seeing people who are dying on the streets because they are not getting shelter or care they need.”

I couldn’t agree more. But please know that the City of Berkeley is working hard to address this humanitarian crisis.

In just about a week, the Pathways Navigation center will open in West Berkeley, and will offer housing and supportive services to 45 people who are now homeless. The elderly and people living at a current encampment at Second and Cedar streets will be prioritized. The city is also working to set aside parcels now owned by Community Based Organizations to convert to low-income housing and has allocated $650,000 on eviction defense to help vulnerable populations remain housed.

However, the sad reality is that no city can solve this crisis alone. Governor Brown recently announced that next year’s budget would earmark $500 million for homeless services. Although this is welcome news, it translates into barely $3,500 for each person now on the streets. It’s a far cry from what is needed. That’s why I, along with Councilmember Sophie Hahn, have recently launched an online petition asking Gov. Brown to declare a state of emergency on homelessness in California.

Berkeley already spends more than any city in Alameda County to help the homeless, approximately $8,000 a year per person. Still, our investment pales in comparison to New York City or Massachusetts, which each spend around $17,000 per homeless person. This is money that has been used to build both short-term shelters, permanent supportive housing and offer services and treatment to the homeless. Not surprisingly, their homeless numbers have dropped, while California’s keep growing. Shockingly, our state is now home to a quarter of the country’s homeless.

Living outside is dangerous, stressful and can worsen existing health problems.

“People age very quickly on the streets,” says Terri Light, executive director of Berkeley Food and Housing Project. “Someone who is 55 and homeless, might have medical conditions that are more typical of people who are 70 or older. Stress, medications not getting refilled, and if they have a mental health condition, it all becomes compounded.”

All too often, the emergency room is the only place the unsheltered get medical care, but when they are released, most head right back to the streets.

“People are being discharged to the streets with catheters still in, in some cases,” said Margot Kushel, a researcher at UCSF and physician at the Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital. “They are not sick enough for the hospital, but they are clearly too sick to be on the streets.”

Kushel worked with San Francisco Public Health to set up a sobering and respite center at ZSFGH, where the homeless can stay after being released from the hospital. But nothing similar exists in the East Bay, with the exception of the Henry Robinson Center in Oakland which has just 30 beds.

She and other advocates say what the region needs is “deeply affordable housing,” that is units for people who earn under $30,000. In addition, hospitals and nonprofit organizations must work together to integrate medical care for the homeless so that health conditions can be managed and follow up care provided to those who need it.

Homelessness is a complex problem. That is why we are working to make sure that all new housing for those now on the streets, whether it’s Pathways or the Berkeley Way project, which will bring 142 units of low-income housing downtown, is offered in conjunction with services. You can find out more about our efforts to combat homelessness in the community at

As Mahatma Gandhi once said that “A nation's greatness is measured by how it treats its weakest members.” Let’s not forget this as we work to improve our community.

Jesse Arreguin