Oliver was born at the tail end of the baby boom, when American families celebrated postwar prosperity by having more children than ever before — 72.5 million between 1946 and 1964, or nearly 40 percent of the population of the United States at the time. Many of those children went on to live stable, successful lives. Others teetered on the edge as they aged, working jobs that didn’t come with 401(k) plans or pensions and didn’t pay enough to build a nest egg, always one misfortune away from losing all they had. Amid the pandemic, many of them are now facing homelessness, at an age when they are often too old to be attractive to employers but are not old enough to collect Social Security.
Policymakers had decades to prepare for this momentous demographic shift, but the social safety net has only frayed under a relentless political pressure to slash funding for programs that senior citizens rely on to make ends meet, like subsidized housing, food and health care. “It’s the first thing fiscally conservative people want to cut,” says Wendy Johnson, executive director of Justa Center in Phoenix, the only daytime resource center in the state set up exclusively for older homeless adults. “But this is every single senior to whom we promised that if they paid into the system, we’d take care of them.”
Last year, after analyzing historical records of shelter admissions in three major American cities, a team of researchers led by Dennis P. Culhane, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania and one of the country’s leading authorities on homelessness, published a sobering projection: In the next 10 years, the number of elderly people experiencing homelessness in the United States would nearly triple, as a wave of baby boomers who have historically made up the largest share of the homeless population ages. And that was before a pandemic arrived to stretch what remains of the social safety net to the breaking point.
“If we’re forecasting a flood, where the water will reach up to our heads,” Culhane told me, “it’s already up to our knees, and rising very, very fast.”
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