Nearly two years ago, Victor Lyons was working as a roofer. During a job, he stepped on a nail. The wound became infected, and Lyons landed in the hospital. The infection took the 61-year-old man’s left leg, and he found himself struggling to learn how to walk again.
He moved in with his son and daughter-in-law, but the couple was experiencing relationship issues. He left to give them space, he said, and that landed him in the shelters in Lansing.
“It was difficult going to the shelter,” Lyons said. “The first 14 days, I realized that I couldn’t stand the shelter because of my leg and hopping back and forth from the long hall to the bathroom. So, I kinda chose to grab a tent and hang out and see what was going on in the woods.”
He has been living in the woods ever since.
Lyons is among a growing trend in the homeless community. They’re older and find themselves subject to the whims of family or friends who have provided shelter. It’s a form of what advocates call “couch surfing,” a hidden form of homelessness.
“Homelessness at this time, at the level that it’s occurring in our community, is the worst I’ve seen in over 30 years of human service provision in Lansing,” said Susan Cancro, executive director of Advent House Ministries. The organization works with the homeless population providing rehousing services, among other services.
That increase she said, “certainly applies to the population in our area of those who are senior citizens.”
Obtaining an accurate count of the homeless is difficult. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development estimated there were 250,000 homeless people over the age of 55 in 2019. A study from the University of Pennsylvania reviewing data from shelters in New York, Los Angeles and Boston estimated 40,000 homeless 65 or older and predicted that will triple by 2030.
A myriad of reasons underlie this sudden increase in unhoused seniors. There’s a lack of affordable housing. The Baby Boomer generation is hitting an age when they’ve retired, but a battering of recessions and the housing bubble collapse have made their retirement incomes lower than expected. Add into that the pressure of inflation, and it is a ready-made crisis.
Adding to the complications, the post-COVID world has witnessed significant rent increases, said Cancro.
“Somebody may come to a point of renewing their lease and suddenly a rent that might have been $850 a month is now $1,250 a month,” she said. “That’d be hard. And it would be hard for anybody, but certainly for someone who has a controlled income like that where they have no option to expand their income.”
A brief by Justice in Aging, a national advocacy group for the elderly, found in 2021 that “more than 1.7 million extremely low-income (ELI) renter households with an older adult are severely cost-burdened, spending more than half of their income on rent and utilities. An ELI household has income at or below 30% of the Area Median Income, or the Federal Poverty Level, whichever is greater.”
Apartments.com reports that in 2021, Lansing rents increased, on average, by 19.5%. In 2022, there was an increase of just .3%, while to date in 2023, the rent has increased 2.8%. The median rent, the website reports, is $1,006.
The average monthly rent for a studio apartment is $842, according to rent.com. A one-bedroom averages $961 and a two-bedroom averages $1,262, per month.
Cancro said when those rent increases hit, many seniors are not able to find work.
“They are elderly, they’re over the age of 60 or 65 and they may have a physical disability that makes it difficult or impossible for them to maintain a regular job,” she said.
Many seniors give up their independent housing in exchange for housing with family members. But that can be problematic, as Lyons’ experience shows. The housing is subject to the whims of the family members and the relationships.
While he originally left his son’s home for the streets, he now chooses to stay on the streets. His family does visit, he said.
“I have grown children. They come out with my grandkids,” he said. “We go fishing down here, they come and hang out at the camp, meet some of the homeless.”
Lyons said he was addicted to a variety of substances, including alcohol, for decades. He’d been sober for two years before the accident that caused him to lose the lower part of his left leg. It took nearly two years to get out of the hospital and learn to walk again, putting his time sober at four years.
But he’s brought his struggles to the street in hopes of helping others.
“I know I feel the pain they go through,” he said. “If no one’s there to listen to them and understand what they’re going through, they’re gonna fall by the wayside. They’re just gonna lay out here and die, and no one’s gonna be able to help them.”
He spoke Sunday less than an hour after he and other residents in the encampment had to provide nine doses of Narcan to a person who overdosed in an encampment 20 feet from their own.
The camp — as far as camping goes — is immaculate. There are a box of canned goods, tents, a grill and an open fire. They have a generator as well. Bags of trash have been filled and sit outside the entry to the camp, ready to be put in a city trash can.
The encampment has to move regularly to prevent law enforcement and city officials from taking the belongings and trashing them.
Cancro said the services being provided for the homeless community are underfunded in the face of the growth in the population, an estimated 300% over the last few years. Her organization can place someone in a hotel room using funding from the city of Lansing, but the pool of money for that is limited.
All the providers working with the homeless are responding to an unprecedented crisis, she said. Trying to harness community engagement, like landlords willing to work with Section 8 or housing vouchers or finding additional financial resources to help people navigate the various systems, is difficult for “an everyday problem” that she said “doesn’t get enough coverage.”
Providers are struggling she said.
“I think the issue, of course, is that the problem isn’t coming — we’re in the middle of it,” she said. “So, it’s difficult because taking action is slow.”
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