Shelters not geared to special needs of older adults

A homeless man on Rene Levesque Blvd. in Montreal.

We pass them, near métro stations, parks, or downtown streets, but we don’t see them.

They are the city’s homeless, part of the urban culture in North America and a living scar, a condemnation of our post-industrial society and its underside.

There has been a recent attempt to count the homeless in Montreal, but that process revealed nothing about the issues behind the statistic.

That is where social worker Victoria Burns entered the picture recently, with her decision to carry out a qualitative study of homelessness in Montreal, with an emphasis on seniors and their first experience with being out on the street. The research is part of her PhD thesis in social work, under review at McGill University. Her supervisors are Tamara Sussman and Jean-Pierre Lavoie.

It is an important piece of research because, as Burns notes, “it could happen to any of us.”

She discovered and documented how the shelters, with their focus on getting people back to work or into independent housing, are not geared to the special needs of older adults. They do, she is quick to note, “provide a vital service.”

A New Brunswick native, Burns, 33, who has undergraduate degrees in psychology and social work and a MSW from McGill, decided to focus her doctoral study on 15 homeless people in Montreal. Her subjects are first-time homeless older adults, who were using shelters during the study.

Burns carried out in-depth interviews and made observations starting in 2012. She also interviewed shelter operators, staff and counselors.

It’s known in academic circles as a qualitative study, or as Burns says, “trying to understand the trajectory into homelessness.

“These are people who led conventional lives; people who worked as accountants, nurses, and became homeless for the first time.

“I had one woman who was 80, a man who was 70.”

As a social worker, Burns had worked in home care for a CLSC and a community organization and was familiar with ‘ageing in place.’

“I wanted to find out what happens when someone is ageing ‘out of place’ – as an older person becoming homeless.”

Her initial research revealed a shifting demographic among the people who use homeless shelters. In one women’s shelter, only nine per cent of residents were over 50 in 1993; that number has more than quadrupled to 40 percent over 50. A lot of them were first-time users.

The situation is similar in men’s shelters, she said, but statistics are not as available because of much greater numbers.

The programs in place are important and useful, but she found they do not necessarily meet the needs of older adults, who may be losing autonomy and are beyond a return-to-work potential.

“The shelters don’t all have elevators. One person I interviewed, who was discharged from hospital, had to use a walker, being partially paralyzed. When sent to a shelter, this person could not use the walker, and had to use a cane and had trouble navigating the stairs to get to the cafeteria.

“In some shelters residents have to leave by 7 a.m. and come back at 4 p.m. This is difficult for older people who have mobility and health issues.”

Burns uncovered two profiles of the trajectory into homelessness : About half had what she describes as a history of “instability” over their lives when it came to housing and work.

“A typical example is someone who had a work injury while in his/her thirties and was living in sub-standard housing.

“A second type was of a more rapid decline, a series of intense losses in later life that propelled them into homelessness with little warning.”

She cites a man who at 70 had just left a well-paying job, lost his mother, daughter and wife over a five-month period, which led to a relapse into alcoholism after 30 years of sobriety.

“Within a year he was on the street, in a homeless shelter,” she said. “It was very abrupt. He isolated himself and was reluctant to seek out help. This is common in the 70-plus generation, the result of shame.”

Because of lack of resources, a lot of homecare work that focused on prevention is no longer offered, she noted. “With more support, his relapse could have been prevented.”

Ten of the 15 had children, but preferred to go to a homeless shelter rather than become a “burden” on their children, she noted. This seems to reflect a prevalent idea in our culture that being dependent is a bad thing, a sign of weakness.

Many suggest that Old Age Security and Guaranteed Income Supplement are no longer sufficient to support seniors at the bottom of the income scale.

“The average waiting list for subsidized housing in Montreal is five years, and when you’re older this is problematic.”

The aim of a qualitative study based on 15 subjects is “depth, not breadth. The findings are contextualized, but illustrate a phenomenon that has been invisible.”

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