Northwest Pilot Project; Aging and Homelessness

by Dec 11, 2023

“The need for suitable, affordable housing and housing-based care is only growing, as is the urgency to act,” according to a recent Harvard study. “Just over 58 percent of people living alone who are at least 75 years old have very low incomes, defined as less than or equal to 50 percent of the area median income.”

On November 30, Harvard University released a study entitled “Housing America’s Older Adults 2023,” referring to a “mismatch between a rapidly aging population and an insufficient supply of affordable, accessible housing connected to services and supports.” This is true for the whole country — and a crisis currently hitting the Portland area hard.

Laura Golino de Lovato, the executive director of Northwest Pilot Project (NWPP), is seeing this play out in Multnomah County with an increase in the number of unhoused older adults while housing costs have risen at an alarming rate. Over the past year, NWPP has stabilized the housing of 1,035 older adults, whether they were homeless or at risk of eviction.

NWPP focuses on the most vulnerable low-income members of the older adult community who live on less than $24,000 per year. This is less than half the 2023 median income of $80,080 in the Portland-Vancouver-Hillsboro area, according to the Portland Housing Bureau.

“So many people are so close to the edge. All it takes is one financial crisis to be homeless,” Golino de Lovato says. “We are the only organization that focuses on housing and low income services [specifically] for older adults.”

Close to the edge is where 61-year-old Lynne found herself a few years ago when a series of setbacks left her living in her car. Eventually, she found her way to NWPP. A caseworker connected her with housing through the Regional Long-term Rent Assistance Program (RLRA), funded through the recently passed Supportive Housing Services Measure. Lynne remembers the struggles she went through before finding long-term housing, thanks to NWPP.

Lynne had to learn where to find the best places to shower, what stores would allow her to use the restroom, and where she could safely park her car to rest. Lynne recalls telling herself, “I am going to be okay, and I’m going to make this work. Every transition that has happened in my life, I’ve always found a way.” She never thought it would take nearly three years to find a permanent safe home again.

Older adults find their way to NWPP by word of mouth or through referrals from other service organizations.

“We have a very strong and broad network of partners that refer people to us,” Golino de Lovato emphasizes. “We’ve been around for 54 years, and because of that, we have good relationships with other service providers, and with housing providers — private landlords large and small, and nonprofits that build and manage apartments.”

Do Good Multnomah, Transition Projects, Central City Concern, the PSU School of Social Work, the City of Portland, Multnomah County’s Aging, Disability and Veterans’ Services, and IRCO are just a few of the organizations NWPP works with to provide housing and other services to clients.

More people in their fifties are becoming homeless for the first time in their lives. This is often because they have a disability or have worked at low wage jobs for years, so their social security benefits are low and they have no savings or pension. Some work part-time. Many have just a small amount of social security income or SSI (Supplemental Security Insurance).

Doug, a Northwest Pilot Project client.

With current rents out of reach for these folks, NWPP creates a housing plan that might start with short term housing subsidized with rent assistance from NWPP, and then a long-term placement. Case managers and assessment specialists help clients with the available options, such as subsidized apartments or rent vouchers. These apartments are in short supply and the wait for a fully subsidized unit can be as long as three to six years. While clients live in short-term housing for one to two years, the focus is on finding long-term affordable housing that is decent and safe.

“Because of the shortage of subsidized apartments, and a shortage of long-term (i.e. ongoing) rent assistance, we first get our clients into housing that is made affordable through a one to two year rent subsidy. Then we work to get them on waitlists for subsidized housing,” Golino de Lovato points out. “We monitor and work with them to see what availability is.”

If resources are available, NWPP might extend the subsidy for another year to prevent someone from becoming homeless, or homeless again.

“The goal for our clients is housing they can afford for a very long time, and with the rents so high the only way to achieve that is with rent subsidies and subsidized apartments,” Golino de Lovato explains.

NWPP plans from the time they start working with clients to ensure that they are always moving toward permanently affordable housing.

“It could mean moving once or twice for a more affordable apartment,” Golino de Lovato said. “And it is complicated by other needs: health conditions, mental health, substance abuse, or even isolation. That is where Supportive Housing Services money comes in and why the Regional Long-term Rent Assistance, or RLRA Program is so critical.”

Services are the key factor for the safety and survival of older adults.

As the Harvard study reports, “Homelessness can devastate an individual’s physical and mental health and, for older adults, complicate other conditions associated with aging.”

Part of NWPP’s housing plan includes determining, with the client, what services they need after moving in. This could be meal delivery, transportation to medical appointments, help paying for prescriptions, or ongoing care for chronic health issues, including mental health and substance use treatment.

Permanent Supportive Housing (PSH) is a vital housing strategy for folks who are homeless and have a disability like impaired vision, COPD, diabetes or complex health issues. NWPP customizes a plan based on each client’s needs. Health challenges that come with aging are compounded exponentially by the stress of unstable housing and especially by homelessness.

Golino de Lovato adds that “we also know that people with chronic health conditions who have stable housing see more significant improvements in their health than people who are homeless.”

For anyone with health issues, medical bills can add up to a financial problem. This can lead to serious debt.

“We definitely have clients — both housed and homeless — who have struggled with medical debt,” Golino de Lovato says. “It creates a very specific barrier to housing as does any debt, and it makes it more challenging for clients to continue to access medical care.”

NWPP’s goal is to help overcome barriers along the way to housing.

“We help clients to get into housing that’s affordable for as long as they want to live there,” Golino de Lovato says. “We work side by side with them as they get placed and after they move in.”

About this ongoing work, Golino de Lovato says, “It is more and more challenging to find an apartment where clients meet the standard of paying one-third of their income for rent. Someone on SSI typically has an income of $841.00 per month, so they should — technically — only be paying about $280.00 per month for rent.”

Without a subsidy, there are no apartments available at that rate. Rent subsidies are critical to housing stability for this aging population here in Oregon and throughout the United States.

“Looking forward, the urgent need for affordable housing and care will grow, not only because of the increasing number of older adults, but also because of widening wealth and income inequality,” Harvard reports.

In the face of all these challenges, NWPP gives clients hope and a chance to find a safe, stable home within their means.

Written by Ellen Clarke, HereTogether’s volunteer storyteller. Thank you to the team at Northwest Pilot Project. This post originally was published on HereTogether’s Medium.

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