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Experts Say Prevention Is Key To Combat Rising Senior Homelessness In Long Beach

When Karen Angone received a notice in early October that the monthly rent on the mobile home plot where she and her 87-year-old mother live would increase by $355 effective January 1, she was shocked. Angone and her neighbors at the Belmont Shores Mobile Estates own their mobile homes, but not the land they stand on, making them at once homeowners and tenants vulnerable to sudden rent increases. “We can’t just give a 30-day notice and leave, because we’ve purchased our homes,” Angone explained.

Instead, she’s part of a group of residents that decided to fight for themselves and their neighbors to remain in their homes. “There are neighbors who can’t fight for themselves. They can’t afford this, and they’re worried about [becoming] homeless,” Angone said. “They’re scared.” The group has taken the issue to the Long Beach City Council, which has asked the Office of the City Attorney to draft a rent stabilization ordinance for mobile homeowners by November 19, 2019, as a result.

But the complicated bind residents of the Belmont Shores Mobile Estates and other mobile home parks find themselves in is just one piece of the puzzle that is senior homelessness in Southern California. In Long Beach, the number of homeless seniors, those 62 and older, has grown 20% over the past four years, according to the city’s biennial Point-in-Time count of homeless persons. Experts across the board, from city staff to faith-based and legal services organizations, have pointed to the increased cost of housing in the region as the main culprit.

Kathy Fountain, Ed Robinson and Robert Probst, Long Beach Rescue Mission
Pictured from left, Kathy Fountain and Ed Robinson are two previously homeless seniors who have found support at the Long Beach Rescue Mission, led by Chaplain and Executive Director Robert Probst. Robinson now serves as a chaplain and case manager at the mission. (Photograph by Brandon Richardson)

“The senior population in Long Beach is definitely a vulnerable population in our housing crisis, because they tend to be on a fixed income, and housing prices continue to soar,” Susanne Browne, senior attorney with the Los Angeles Legal Aid Foundation (LAFLA) told the Business Journal.

Working on the issue of housing in Long Beach, Browne said she welcomes the tenant protections passed by the city council as well as the state government this year, as measures to protect renters, including seniors, from becoming displaced.

Browne said to ensure that senior renters are able to take advantage of the protections they are afforded by the new state and local laws, they need advocates. In Los Angeles, the Housing + Community Investment Department has dedicated staff to investigate alleged violations of the city’s rent stabilization ordinance. Long Beach, which does not have a rent control ordinance but does have one dedicated to tenant relocation assistance, should do the same, Browne suggested. “It would just go a long way to make those rights more meaningful,” she said.

In addition to legal advocacy, institutions such as the City of Long Beach’s Multi-Service Center, which connects homeless residents with various resources and services across the city are key, LAFLA homeless protection expert Javier Beltran added. “Having that component is extremely important,” Beltran said. “We can’t do what they do.”

Shannon Parker, a homeless services officer with the City of Long Beach who works at the center, echoed concerns over the increased cost of housing and the impact it has on seniors’ lives. “Many of them are on a fixed income and they cannot keep up with the cost of housing,” Parker said. “We’re definitely concerned about the growing risk amongst folks that are seniors.”

Some cities, Parker pointed out, have started pilot programs to prevent seniors from becoming homeless in the first place, by offering what is commonly referred to as shallow subsidies. Under such programs, cities pay senior residents a subsidy – between $200 and $660 per month in the case of Santa Monica – to help with rent payments. “The idea behind that is: it’s much cheaper and much kinder to keep those seniors in their housing,” Parker said.

Many seniors who visit the center struggle to afford housing after losing a spouse, suddenly reliant on only one income to pay for their monthly expenses, Parker noted. Robert Probst, chaplain and executive director of the Long Beach Rescue Mission, echoed this observation. “That’s a hard one, because it’s almost like a double deal,” he said. “You become widowed, you’re lonely, you’re heartbroken, your income breaks in half and you can’t afford housing.”

Participants in the mission’s one-year program, which is primarily designed to help those struggling with chronic homelessness, are examples of a different demographic contributing to the rising number of homeless seniors: they’ve aged into seniority while living on the street. “They may have very similar needs but the way you go about approaching them can be very different,” Parker explained.

Kathy Fountain, a current participant in the mission’s one-year program for women, praised the staff at the multi-service center for their assistance. Fountain, who by her own account has been in and out of homelessness for the past 43 years, joined the program in March, after staff at the multi-service center directed her to the Rescue Mission. “I didn’t think there was a way out for a person like me,” Fountain said. Today, Fountain still struggles with feelings of guilt and depression, but the program has given her a path forward, she explained. “It’s been the most hurtful, horrible, wonderful, miraculous, loving experience,” Fountain said. “I consider it a blessing to have walked through these doors.”

While seniors at risk of homelessness may see relief with tenant protections and rental subsidies, those who have spent years on the street often need mental health treatment and assisted, very low-income housing to escape homelessness for good, several experts interviewed by the Business Journal noted. “This demographic has not been successful, traditionally, in our economic model,” Parker said.

Without enough working years on the books to qualify for the full social security benefits available to seniors, many of these clients only receive supplemental security income (SSI), which was capped at $771 for individual recipients in 2019. “That is something we see a lot: seniors coming in who don’t have any savings and are receiving the lowest amount that [social security] can offer,” Parker noted. Unable to afford housing on their minimal income, these seniors have to rely on affordable housing units and federally-funded housing vouchers to keep a roof over their heads. The funding local housing agencies receive for the voucher program is limited, often leading to long wait times for applicants.

Together with affordable housing developer Century Housing, the city is currently in the process of building a new facility to house 121 homeless and low-income seniors. The Beacon is expected to open its doors at the turn of the year, according to Parker, and will receive tenants through the city’s coordinated entry system, which draws from a database of clients experiencing homelessness in the city.

According to the most recent count in 2019, there are nearly 600 homeless seniors, aged 55 and older, in Long Beach. To get a handle on the issue of senior homelessness, Probst said, the work needs to begin before seniors end up on the street, including an expansion of care facilities and affordable housing. “Right now, the city, the state and our country are focusing on homelessness, but we really need to focus on homeless prevention,” he said.

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