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News / Health / Clark County Health

Homeless population grays in Clark County as more seniors end up on the street

Many find themselves pinched between fixed incomes, rising rents and medical costs

By Mia Ryder-Marks, Columbian staff reporter, and
Alexis Weisend, Columbian staff reporter
Published: September 23, 2023, 6:14am
7 Photos
Health services liaison Dianna Kretzschmar, left, chats with Vancouver Specialty and Rehabilitative Care resident Chris Muntean.
Health services liaison Dianna Kretzschmar, left, chats with Vancouver Specialty and Rehabilitative Care resident Chris Muntean. (Amanda Cowan/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

Chris Muntean, 70, feels lucky he had a heart attack.

He had lost everything before, but never his housing. In 2017, after developing colon cancer and paying for chemotherapy treatment, the former truck driver was struggling to pay the rising rent of his Vancouver apartment.

He sold everything he could, including his truck, to pay his rent. By age 65, he was broke and on food stamps. Eventually, his rent increased to $1,364.

Muntean remembers the exact day he became homeless: July 3, 2023.

After loading a storage unit with everything he had left, he called Council for the Homeless’ housing hotline to find a shelter, but was told he needed to spend one night on the street to qualify.

Stressed and overheated, he turned on the air conditioning as soon as he got into his motel room. But as he lay on the bed, the heat didn’t go away. The other signs of a heart attack soon followed.

Who is eligible for shelter?

Based on a U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development rule, in order to access a publicly funded emergency shelter a resident must be “literally homeless.” The agency defines that as an individual or family that lacks a fixed, regular and adequate nighttime residency.

A person needs to meet one of three subcategories to qualify as “literally homeless”:

  • Has a primary nighttime residence that is a public or private place not meant for human habitation; or
  • Is living in a publicly or privately operated shelter designated to provide temporary living arrangements (including congregate shelters, transitional housing, and hotels and motels paid for by charitable organizations or by federal, state and local government programs); or
  • Is exiting an institution where they have resided for 90 days or less and who resided in an emergency shelter or place not meant for human habitation immediately before entering that institution.

Muntean spent his first night homeless at the hospital.

“I don’t want to be cynical, but I’m lucky,” Muntean said. “The stress will fade, but I didn’t have the chance to sleep on the street because I had a heart attack.”

Homelessness is graying in Clark County. As many seniors live on fixed incomes, the rising cost of living is pushing more to spend their retirement years on the streets.

Between 2019 and 2022, the number of people older than 55 accessing some type of homeless service in Clark County increased by 34 percent. Last year, that was 1,187 people — 149 of whom were more than 70 years old.

By 2025, one in four Clark County residents are anticipated to be 60 or older, and as the general population ages, so will the homeless population. Many people won’t receive help until they’re in a hospital bed.

“This is how we repay them in their retirement years — you have to worry about something we never had to worry about as a younger person,” said Dianna Kretzschmar, board president of Friends of the Elder Justice Project.

Rising rents, fixed incomes

Senior renters are especially vulnerable to losing their housing.

A state report shows that a typical one-bedroom apartment in Clark County rents for $1,610 per month. The national average Social Security payment is $1,759, according to the Social Security Administration. That would leave a typical senior renter with just under $150 for other expenses.

“Increasing costs of housing coupled with many seniors being on fixed income means they are not able to keep up with rising costs of rent,” said Jessica Nelson, media relations manager for the Washington State Department of Social and Health Services.

J.P. Walmer, 71, receives around $1,200 monthly from Social Security payments.

He starts off his mornings like most older adults — with a hot pot of coffee and a walk around the neighborhood.

But his peaceful morning routine is often interrupted by banging and hammering of construction along the nearby waterfront piercing the thin, polyester walls of his green tent behind Vancouver City Hall. The noise is making him lose his hearing, he said.

In August, Walmer received a 72-hour notice from his landlord that he needed to vacate his apartment. After finding he couldn’t afford any housing in town, he lived in the U-Haul truck that stored his entire life for about a week before joining the unsanctioned campsite behind City Hall. He set up his tent next to a woman in her 60s.

Older adults like Walmer would need to make more than $2,800 to survive comfortably in Vancouver, according to the Elder Index, an online calculator that estimates living expenses for seniors by their location.

He is staying optimistic and working with an outreach team to find affordable housing, and saving up his Social Security payments. But he had to spend his last check on survival necessities like a tent.

‘My golden years’

Many seniors are experiencing homelessness for the first time.

Nationally, adults older than 65 are the fastest growing age group becoming homeless, according to a study from the American Society on Aging. The study found almost half of unhoused people older than 50 in Oakland, California first became homeless after they turned 50.

Julie, who asked only her first name be used for privacy, became homeless at 70.

She was living in her four-bedroom house in Battle Ground, working for an events website, when the Great Recession hit. In spite of not having Subprime mortgage, her house foreclosed. She lost everything at 58.

The rent on her Vancouver apartment rose from $1,160 to $1,470 — she couldn’t pay it.

After the sheriff evicted her, Julie drove to the city of Vancouver’s Safe Park with her Havanese-poodle, Tucker, where a staff member met her.

“I was kind of crying, which I don’t cry because I’m a very independent strong woman, but I was kind of crying,” Julie recalled. “And he said, ‘We do have open slots.’ He goes, ‘Come on, we’re going to get you set up.’’’

Using a walker because of a bad hip, Julie slept in her car for six months at Safe Park.

Her doctors couldn’t do hip replacement surgery because she would have to recover in her car, so she had to move into Bertha’s Place, a homeless shelter. She’s been saving up to move into housing once she recovers from the operation.

This wasn’t the kind of retirement she had expected for herself.

“I’ve bought and sold three homes. I’ve been a working woman all my life,” she said. “These are supposed to be my golden years.”

In Clark County in 2022

1,187 people over the age of 55 experienced homelessness.

1,038 were 55-69 years old.

149 were 70 years old or more.

13% of Clark County’s homeless population is over the age of 55.

Rent and Social Security

$1,610 per month: Rent for a typical one-bedroom apartment in Clark County.

$1,759: The national average for a Social Security payment. That would leave a typical senior renter with just under $150 for other expenses.

In Clark County, 13 percent of people who access homeless resources are older than 55.

“We’re stuck on our fixed incomes,” she said. “The main thing is that bad things happen to good people all the time.”

Intervention follows emergency

Muntean wanted a person to help him navigate the housing assistance system before he had his heart attack.

But he was left alone, clicking on endless search results, which he said showed the same information.

Stacey Daly, a nurse at Vancouver Specialty and Rehabilitative Care, said people often need help from social workers to find the right resources, like vouchers and Medicare.

“It’s difficult for people who aren’t connected to even find the right resources, and then when they do find the right resources, they’re so booked up,” she said.

For many older adults struggling with housing insecurity or homelessness as their health spirals, help starts at the hospital with nurse case managers.

That’s how Dave Collard, 71, came to Vancouver Specialty. He sits in a wheelchair inside the nursing home, malnourished and recovering from having half his foot removed due to diabetes.

Born and raised in Clark County, Collard worked in maintenance before retiring and experiencing a series of health issues, including a stroke. When rent on his Camas apartment skyrocketed, he was left living in his truck in the mountains.

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“That wasn’t all too bad,” he said. “But at night it is black up there. You don’t see anything. I was a little scared, so I came back down.”

After he’s released from the nursing home, he will return to his truck, which now sits on a family member’s property, where he can use electricity for light.

Collard, who has diabetes, has lost more than 30 pounds from the stress of experiencing homelessness and because he doesn’t have the ability to cook nourishing meals.

“The problem with my truck is that it’s stick shift, so I got to figure out how I’m going to do it now with half a foot. If I can’t (do) that, I’m so screwed,” said Collard.

Developing health problems is common during old age but is exacerbated by housing instability and the conditions of being homeless.

It doesn’t help that many seniors are forced to choose between rent or medications.

“Those rent increases are making these folks have to make a decision,” Kretzschmar said. “Do I get meds or do I pay for rent? Can I pay my supplemental insurance? Or do I have to pay rent? Can I afford my physician’s co-pay, or do I pay rent?”

This is a decision Muntean struggled with for many years. As he faced more financial constraints, he began to wean off of what medications he could, one of them for depression.

Both Muntean and Collard faced mental health challenges, including thoughts of suicide, as their housing stability deteriorated.

“There are days when I don’t want to get up in the morning. I wake up and I just wish like hell to fall back asleep again because I don’t want to face another day,” Collard said.

“It just plays with your mind like that and you think about killing yourself sometimes. What rational person wouldn’t? I won’t do it though because I’m Christian.”

Collard and Muntean are not alone. Financial strain is one of the leading suicide risk factors in America.

GET HELP

This story touches on themes of suicide. The national suicide and crisis lifeline is always available by calling or texting 988. There is also an online chat at 988lifeline.org. Services are free and confidential.

Council for the Homeless Housing Hotline: 360-695-9677.

“The system has made them feel so hopeless,” Kretzschmar said.

Unaffordable affordable housing

Many of the places where people are expected to go as they age are out of reach for seniors.

Collard worked for many years as head of maintenance for Clearwater Springs Assisted Living, but he said he could never afford to stay at the facility now.

The average monthly cost for an assisted living facility in Washington is $6,365, with some fluctuation depending on each patient’s needs.

Other affordable options like manufactured home communities, which are primarily made up of older, retired adults, are no longer always cost efficient. Residents in these communities own their homes but rent the land they sit upon.

“There’s a lot of concern about seniors in general, and housing affordability. We see this particularly with manufactured homes,” said Michele Thomas, director of policy and advocacy for Washington Low Income Housing Alliance. “They used to be an affordable option for seniors but now they are seeing large rent increases that they can’t afford.”

Clark County is recognizing there’s an incoming wave of seniors that will need housing. Many affordable housing projects in the last few years have been geared toward seniors, located in walkable neighborhoods near bus lines.

But with most affordable housing being for tenants earning between 50 and 80 percent of the area’s median income ($39,500 to $63,150 for a single person in Clark County), even the county’s very low income housing is unattainable for Muntean, Collard, Walmer and Julie.

Older adults in metropolitan areas like Clark County are working longer than they used to, many out of necessity. But, eventually, they face retirement and the financial woes it may bring.

According to a national survey, 52 percent of older adults who participated said they anticipate working past retirement age out of financial necessity.

Many seniors are looking for alternative solutions and financial help instead — they just need some time and guidance getting there.

Muntean just received a housing voucher and plans to move into an apartment soon. Collard is saving for a trailer. Walmer dreams of moving into a tiny home. Julie is saving her money and hopes to move into housing after her hip replacement.

They are from a generation that has persevered through nearly a dozen recessions, inflation and a pandemic. And now, all they want to do is live out their days in stability.

Although the community eventually stepped in when these four people needed help, there are still many seniors in Clark County struggling to find resources to keep them housed.

“What happens to all the folks who didn’t have the advocacy in the hospital and didn’t land in a place where we can plug them into the system? They’re lost. And this is an epidemic that’s growing,” Kretzschmar said.

“The graying of America is here.”

Community Funded Journalism logo

This story was made possible by Community Funded Journalism, a project from The Columbian and the Local Media Foundation. Top donors include the Ed and Dollie Lynch Fund, Patricia, David and Jacob Nierenberg, Connie and Lee Kearney, Steve and Jan Oliva, The Cowlitz Tribal Foundation and the Mason E. Nolan Charitable Fund. The Columbian controls all content. For more information, visit columbian.com/cfj.

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