Street Life Takes Years Off of Aging Women


One of the main arguments against San Francisco’s attempts to create solutions to homelessness like the coordinated entry system is that there is no “one size fits all” solution to homelessness. While the intention is to create more entryways into housing, these entryways look more like major hurdles for those who have different sets of needs being overlooked.

Women over the age of 50 experience the same discomforts that everyone living without a permanent home knows, but they also have different needs than those who are younger or of a different gender. Medically, older women experience menopause, which comes with its own set of challenges and needs. They are also at a higher risk than younger women for breast, ovarian and cervical cancer. Without a stable home, these women are less likely to be able to afford or find the time to have regular doctor’s visits. Mental illness and trauma is an urgent cause for women needing housing as well; the National Violence Resource Center puts the lifelong risk of sexual violence at 97 percent for homeless women with mental illness.

“Women face really great challenges with being safe and getting a decent night’s sleep as they spend night after night without a decent place to live,” said Jennifer Friedenbach, the Executive Director for the Coalition on Homelessness, which publishes the Street Sheet.

Recovering from addictions and experiencing aches and pains from aging can be a source of a need for housing as well. “I’m not a well person,” said Patricia Hebron, a 59-year old San Francisco native who has been homeless since 2002. “I’m on a methadone program and I need a place cause it’s too hard for me now that I’m older.” Patricia stated that she also has chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, arthritis and kidney problems—conditions that are most common in older folks—which contribute to her need to find a home.

Although the numbers from San Francisco’s last Point-in-Time Count, a demographic survey of the homeless population,  do not specify how many homeless, elderly women live in the city, we know that approximately 32 percent of all people who experience homelessness are over the age of 50. They make up the largest age group of people in the city who live without a permanent home. As people get older and retire or are unable to work, a city as expensive as San Francisco becomes more and more challenging to pay rent and comfortably live in. This has driven many who had previously never experienced homelessness out of their homes. It contradicts the common misconception that many people choose to be homeless.

“The people I see are scared to death [because] a lot of this is a new experience for them,” said Gwendolyn Westbrook, the director of Mother Brown’s Dining Room, a social service provider which operates in Bayview and provides two hot meals every single day for those in need, especially senior citizens, as well as anything else they can provide. Those needing rest can sleep in the dining room, those in need of medical care can be referred out, and the organization tries its best to provide foreseeable needs such as sanitary products for women.

As for what Mother Brown’s needs in order to provide more for the seniors that come to them, Westbrook has no doubt in her mind.

“They need to get us some beds out here. They need to let these people lay down. That’s what the city needs to concentrate on and they have [come up with] every excuse not to help the people of Bayview yet we pay thousands in taxes,” said Westbrook. The United Council of Human Services, Mother Brown’s parent organization, made plans with the city beginning in 2014 to build a 100-bed shelter next door to the dining room, but the city pulled their request for state funding in 2015 because, according to the city, it would be too costly. They stated that they would rather put funding towards permanent housing as opposed to shelters.

The City has begun to attempt to address the housing crisis, often referring to their actions as a “housing first” solution, implying that they would rather build homes than shelters. The reality is far from the ideal, with shelters filled with people waiting to exit into housing and streets filled with people waiting to enter shelter. While the new coordinated entry system is meant to make this system more efficient and effective, Westbrook is not impressed.

“It’s a tactic to act like they’re doing something. They say you have to be on the streets for thirteen years before they’ll try to help house you. What is that? That is ridiculous,” she continued to say, “They aren’t doing anything. ‘Housing first’ means nothing.”

In the meantime, San Francisco is limited in its options for homeless and low-income seniors. One of the few options that older women go to for a place to rest at night when shelters are full is A Woman’s Place Drop-In Center. The 24-hour drop-in center does not provide beds, and instead has rows of chairs that women may rest in. But chairs are not beds.

“You see many women there who often have Alzheimer’s or other debilitating conditions who are languishing in chairs 24 hours of the day without a bed to sleep in. They crave community and appropriate housing placements where they’re not just left to rot,” said Friedenbach.

Those who are able to get a space in a shelter will most often be back without a bed once their shelter stay—which can last anywhere between one and 120 days—is finished. Patricia Hebron, and many like her, find residential Single Room Occupancy hotels to be a viable spot to stay in place of a home, but they are costly.

“My place costs $80 per night but I’ve worked out a deal where I pay $800 a month, which is a lot for a room with nothing in it besides a bed and a sink.” These places typically are not designed for women with disabilities: They lack accessible bathrooms, ADA requirements, elevators, and are generally an unsafe place for older women to be. Adds Friedenbach, “It’s incredibly lonely.”

For homeless people,  $800 per month on rent is out of the question. Ms. Hebron receives a Supplemental Security Income check every month, but after rent is due she says there is not even enough money left over for a week’s worth of groceries and other necessities. It’s just not enough to survive.

The women interviewed all agreed on the same thing: The City needs to put forth more effort to ease the conditions for senior women by actually building and allowing spaces to be made in order to provide healthy, safe care and comfort.

“I don’t want to die on the streets,” said Hebron, “I want the next place I move to be my last.”