‘I Think I’ll Live Here the Rest of My Life’

As a growing number of senior citizens are at increasing risk of homelessness, one local grandfather finds a home
The-Homefront-Seniors-Joseph-Wheeler-Fall-2019
Joseph Wheeler spent months in a homeless shelter before being placed in an apartment.

© 2019 NowKalamazoo/Chris Killian

Joseph Wheeler would try to leave the shelter under the cover of the first light of day, when the early morning fog would cloak him in a way. He didn’t want to be seen. He didn’t want to be robbed, he says, having returned to Kalamazoo in mid-2018, homeless.

“I had some money in my pockets, maybe $100 even,” he told The Homefront, worried someone else staying at the Mission would then make him a target. “They’d try to follow me. So I’d try to lose them in the fog.”

Wheeler, who is 80 years old, didn’t like the food at the Kalamazoo Gospel Mission where he spent his nights from September to late fall last year. So he’d walk across the Kalamazoo Transportation Center as Metro Transit buses were starting service for the day to the nearby McDonald’s. There, he’d take his breakfast and sit with a drink, sometimes for hours.

Negotiating the often confusing roadmap from life on the streets to sustainable housing can make a homeless person feel like they are moving through fog, too. It is a time consuming, physically taxing, frustrating series of steps, much of it encircled by red tape and stymied by delays.

The process can be especially hard for the more vulnerable members of the homeless community — already an at-risk group — such as senior citizens.

Of the 3,065 people who experienced homelessness in Kalamazoo County in 2018, 306 were older than 55, according to the federally mandated count in Kalamazoo County conducted for the local Continuum of Care, the planning body that coordinates homelessness services funding and housing efforts. Officials involved say that count is surely not representative of the area’s true homeless population.

The number of older homeless people in America is expected to increase.

“The number of U.S. aged homeless over age 55 could grow to 225,000 by 2026, up from 170,000 in 2017. This growth is mostly driven by a 165% increase in the population 65 and older, from 40,000 in 2017 to 106,000 by 2030,” according to a 2019 report by the University of Pennsylvania, The Emerging Crisis of Aged Homelessness, which studied data from Boston, New York City, and Los Angeles County.

It projected a nearly tripling of older homeless people by 2030, saying, “Extrapolating the cost data from this study to the country as a whole, the aged homeless population could cost the nation $5 billion on average annually in health and shelter use over the next decade.”

‘Gearing Up’ for More

Samantha Carlson, older adult services director at Kalamazoo County’s Area Agency on Aging, told The Homefront they are “gearing up for that population.”

The Area Agency on Aging is a conduit for connecting people over 60 with assistance and information particular to their needs, especially accessing and retaining housing and medical care. In Kalamazoo County, case managers, social workers, and nurses are servicing close to its 450 person capacity and currently field about 300 calls a month on its help line, Carlson says.

“The cost of health care and prescriptions are causing significant poverty in our older adults,” she says. “You have one catastrophic health care incident that can change the entire trajectory of what your plans are for retirement.”

A 2019 report by Feeding America, an anti-hunger organization, The State of Senior Hunger in America in 2017 found Michigan tracks the national average of nearly 8% of people over 60 that are “food insecure.” In 2015, the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) found the number of older people that are food insecure is rising and less of them are getting access to available free food services. Making matters worse, federal spending on programs to feed the oldest, poorest Americans continues to decline, according to AARP.

The University of Pennsylvania study recommended utilization of increased housing and related services, bespoke to that age group, to both reduce the number of people experiencing homelessness as well as lower costs for shelters and the health care system.

“We need a variety of housing options,” says Carlson. “Most of the subsidized and [Department of Housing and Urban Development] housing have a waiting list. Some of the waiting lists are years.”

Many seniors feel isolated, without a support network, invisible even. Carlson says seniors are often caught between maintaining the dignity of living without someone “in their business” and the “level of isolation and shame that they can’t afford what they need. Choosing between paying bills, food, and housing.”

With the exception of the friends he’s made at the Ecumenical Senior Center, a Northside agency that provides services and activities to the city’s older residents, Wheeler has very little in the way of support.

In recent years, Wheeler lived in subsidized housing downtown at the Rickman House and Skyrise Apartments, which he says he left because it became too expensive. He found himself homeless again. In September 2018, Wheeler sought shelter at the Kalamazoo Gospel Mission.

“From the beginning it broke my heart to see him come here and hang out with his peers only to know that he’d leave and go back to sleep at a homeless shelter,” Tim Barnes, the Ecumenical Senior Center’s executive director, told The Homefront. “We try to be his family. But when he leaves, he’s on his own. People like Joseph can feel invisible to the world. Being homeless only makes it worse. They can feel like they’re going backwards.”

Barnes and his staff helped Wheeler get in touch with Gospel Mission staff to begin the process of moving into permanent housing. After months of work identifying potential places and programs Wheeler might be eligible for, they found an apartment for him at Washington Square Senior Apartments in the Edison neighborhood. He pays 30 percent of his monthly Social Security income for the apartment, with the federal government paying the rest.

‘Sometimes You Need People’

Percy Cross, who served as Wheeler’s caseworker at the Mission, told The Homefront he’s seen many examples of people succumbing to the myriad obstacles: losing Social Security disability benefits, veterans fed up with bureaucratic inefficiencies and benefits delays at the state and federal level, and the lifelong fight for some against addiction.

“It can be extremely daunting,” Cross says.

Wheeler grew up in Arkansas during the days of the Jim Crow South, raised by his maternal grandmother. At 14, he left the house, working odd jobs for white families earning $18 a week. He has a fourth grade education, but he has acquired many skills in his decades of life, and says, proudly: “I have never been afraid to look a man in his eyes.”

By 16, Wheeler had moved to Berrien Springs, Mich., where he fixed cars and picked produce on area farms. He experienced homelessness for the first time when he was 19, sleeping on a friend’s porch. Since then, he’s lived all over the United States: Arizona, Florida, Texas, California, and eventually, Kalamazoo on multiple occasions. Sometimes he had a place to call his own. When money was tight, or there was no money at all, he found himself seeking the refuge of a friend’s couch or, in the warmer months — once again — their porch.

On this day, he looks out the window of his sixth floor, one-bedroom apartment in Kalamazoo’s Washington Square neighborhood. It’s cold and low clouds hang over the city out there. Inside, it’s warm, cozy, even welcoming, the scent of the apple cinnamon air freshener he likes so much hanging over everything.

There are no tables yet, the phone sitting on top of a small cardboard box, pictures of his son and grandkids and holiday cards crowd the top of the air conditioning unit. A worn, pocket-sized Bible held together with a rubber band lays on the seat of a bike he plans on fixing up. A homeless life often means a life on the move, and he has become used to not having many amenities, he says.

Still, he has two televisions — one in the bedroom and one in the living room. He leaves them on most of the day, he says, “because I like the sound. It makes it feel like there are people here.”

The building is devoted to senior housing, and many here get around in wheelchairs or shuffle with walkers. Wheeler has a new red metal cane, but he rarely uses it. He has a full head of snow white hair and captivating hazel-blue eyes that widen with life when he recounts tales of his youth, of adventure, of making his way through a life that hasn’t always treated him fairly, but one he is grateful to have lived on his own terms.

His refrigerator and freezer burst with food — a giant bag of homemade soup from someone at the center, bunches of greens, oranges, bologna, ice cream and sausages. In a similar way, the cupboards are chock full of canned goods, cereal boxes and dry goods.

“Life is not easy,” he says. “Sometimes you need people to help you. You need them to cut your hair or to have you over for supper and let you take the leftovers. I don’t think I could have found this place on my own.”

He has almost everything he needs, he says, although he admits: “You can get lonely. I’d like someone to come over, have some soup, watch some TV.”

Still now, after a life of sometimes uncertainty about where he would lay his head at night and whether he actually had a home at all, that much has been figured out. That worry has been lifted.

“I feel all right now,” he says. “I think I’ll live here for the rest of my life.”

Stories in this issue:

From The Publisher

In Search of a Strategy

The Struggle

Those Facing the Most Risk:

Tears of Relief

We Can Do It Too

Not Enough Support

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