Editor’s Note: Sterling Higa won $500 for his efforts. Read about other winners here and check out their stories all this week.
Every day, I pass more than one hundred homeless people during my commute.
I live in Nu‘uanu, so I see families camped in cars or on the sidewalk along the avenue. I work downtown, passing people asleep in business entrances in the early morning. I bike along a row of two dozen tents in A‘ala park on my way to the gym at night.
Sadly, this crisis has become our new normal. But recently, I have noticed a surprising demographic shift in the homeless population.
Beyond all others, I have noticed one group of homeless people increasing in number. They live alone. They display no signs of illness. And they are not stuck between jobs.
They are senior citizens. Most are in their 60s, and a few look to be in their early 70s. They are my mother’s age – baby boomers – and their presence on the streets should sound an alarm bell for the state.
In the first half of the 20th century, large families were common in Hawaii, especially among recent immigrants. My mother, a local Japanese woman, was born in Hilo in the 1950s. She has four siblings: three brothers and one sister. Incredibly, my mother had fewer siblings than her parents. My grandmother had six siblings; my grandfather had nine.
There are multiple reasons for declining family size. After World War II, more women entered the workforce and pursued university education. Increased access to contraceptives allowed for family planning and delayed childbirth.
Women who chose to have children opted for smaller families; rather than have many children, they had one or two and invested more into each child. I know this firsthand. My mother had four siblings; I have none.
As a result, the average family size has shrunk. This is consistent with a broader American trend: since the 1940s, family and household sizes have declined. This shift has profound implications for a variety of social issues, including homelessness.
Before social security and the welfare state, family and church served as safety nets. Extended family and religious organizations could be counted on to provide support for those down on their luck.
In old age, seniors relied on their children or siblings. Elderly people without children or siblings turned to distant relatives for assistance. But the rise of the nuclear family has eclipsed the extended family. There are fewer siblings, fewer children to care for the elderly. And some children no longer feel a strong sense of duty to care for their parents.
Moreover, during the last 50 years of declining household size, religious affiliation has also decreased. A Pew Research Center study found that more than one-quarter of baby boomers seldom or never attend religious services.
Given these developments, seniors without children today are often left without family or religious assistance. Thus, baby boomers face an increased risk of becoming homeless compared to previous generations.
The federal government already provides substantial assistance for the elderly. Medicare, social security, and subsidized housing all help seniors. However, federal assistance is not guaranteed. In recent years, policy changes in the Department of Housing and Urban Development have threatened to reduce housing subsidies.
Proactive measures can help reduce the number of homeless senior citizens now and in the future.
Our state and city governments must make additional preparations for an aging population. Unlike previous generations, those now joining the ranks of the elderly have fewer children and lower levels of religious affiliation. They will depend more heavily on government assistance.
Economic turbulence threatens the retirement savings of these seniors. And the cost of living in Hawaii continues to increase. Absent more attention, I fear that these people will slip through the cracks.
Though dire, homelessness is a preventable tragedy. Safe zones and public-private partnerships like Kahauiki Village are promising models to help accommodate the homeless in general, but the state must also increase the number of subsidized units available specifically for senior citizens.
Without question, the current rate of new unit construction is insufficient to meet future demand. Already, the waitlist for income-based senior housing (through the Hawaii Public Housing Authority) is years-long. My grandmother, now in her 80s, waited for two years when she applied. The fixed-rate waitlist is shorter, but applicants can still wait up to a year.
Where possible, the housing application process should be streamlined and wait times reduced, so that senior citizens spend less time waiting for a place to live.
In addition, it might be helpful to upgrade new and existing affordable units to make them accessible for those with movement limitations. These measures will ensure that our elders have a safe place to stay, a home in old age.
Proactive measures like these can help reduce the number of homeless senior citizens now and in the future. No person should be forced to live on the streets. Our elders deserve better than that.