Life expectancy gains are typically associated with higher socio-economic levels.  Generally, those from poorer backgrounds experience increased levels of morbidity and mortality in comparison with the general population.  More recently even those from lower socio-economic levels, including the homeless[1], are experiencing increases in life expectancy.

An interim report from the City of Toronto[2] identifies a dramatic increase in older homeless people as illustrated in the chart below.  Increases in the proportions of homeless people are seen only in those age groups older than 50.  The result is that nearly a third of Toronto’s homeless are over the age of 50, up from a fifth only four years ago.  This rapid change in demographics means that the needs of the homeless are also changing quickly.

Age Share   of total respondents in 2009 Share   of total respondents in 2013
Under   21

8.0%

6.5%

21-30

22.8%

20.1%

31-40

22.1%

20.2%

41-50

27.6%

24.1%

51-60

14.9%

19.1%

61-65

1.9%

5.4%

Over 65

2.8%

4.6%

Source:  2013 Street Needs Assessment Interim Report, City of Toronto

The aging of homeless people has already been experienced in other cities throughout North America.  One such study of older homeless populations highlighted the pressing need to better prepare for this unique older group.  A study of homeless shelters in the San Francisco area resulted in an astounding finding – the aging rate of their homeless population was greater than the rate of aging of their general population[3].

Needs change with aging

Agencies that previously served mainly young, male populations will increasingly need to meet the needs of aging homeless individuals.  This older homeless population will be at risk from one or more chronic diseases such as heart disease, hypertension and diabetes.  Mobility issues that increase with aging, especially with those who have had substandard nutrition and health care will mean increasing accessibility issues.  Homeless shelters, food banks, soup-kitchens and other community services may find that their facilities are inadequate when serving older adults.  Community meal preparation will increase in complexity as street agencies cope to meet the dietary needs of diabetics as well as other chronic illnesses.  This may also add to the expense of meal ingredients and preparation efforts.

Population aging is taking place in many countries, but also in many sectors within countries.  The homeless older population is a unique group whose needs are probably not yet fully understood, requiring additional effort from governments and social agencies to identify and prepare for this new challenge.

(Photo from www.pixabay.com, by werner22brigitte)


[1] The label ‘homeless’ is used in this context to refer to those without homes, but also those who are those under-housed, transitionally housed and street-people by choice.

[2] http://www.toronto.ca/housing/SNA2013interim_report.htm .

[3] The aging of the homeless population:  fourteen-year trends in San Francisco.  (2006)  Journal of General Internal Medicine (21), 775-778.