Columbia Falls, Mont. — On a recent rainy afternoon in this small town just outside Glacier National Park, Lisa Beaty and Kim Hilton were preparing to sell most of their belongings before moving out of their three-bedroom, two-bathroom rental home.
Hilton, who was recovering from a broken leg, watched from his recliner as friends and family lined up with old hunting gear, jewelry, furniture and clothes. “The only thing that’s not for sale is the house — everything else has to go,” Hilton, 68, said as he checked his blood sugar.
Hilton has type 2 diabetes, heart disease and other health problems that have left him disabled and unable to work for years. For income, he relies on federal disability benefits. Due to a shoulder injury and fibromyalgia, 64-year-old Beatty – Hilton’s partner of seven years – does, too. Together, they earn about $1,500 a month.
Enough of that anymore, though. Investors bought their homes this year and increased rent from $1,000 to $1,800 including utilities, plus the cost of utilities.
“They’re not evicting me — based on a certain income, I can’t do it,” Beatty said as she arranged her belongings.
They have nowhere else to go. And they weren’t just losing their homes: the stress of the ordeal ended their relationship. Beatty planned to move into his daughter’s one-bedroom apartment.
Despite his poor health and still relying on leg braces to prevent another broken leg, Hilton, who is on Medicare, planned to live out of his truck while waiting for a spot to open up in one of Flathead County’s few assisted living facilities. , which is mostly rural. The wait could be days, or months.
Beatty and Hilton are part of a recent surge in homelessness among people over 60. The housing affordability crisis, driven by the Covid-19 pandemic, and high inflation are chipping away at their fixed incomes. Although data is limited, advocates for the elderly and homeless say a greater number of adults are showing up in shelters across the country.
The problem is particularly acute in Montana, where snow has begun to fly as the long Rocky Mountain winter sets in.
Rents in Montana have skyrocketed since the pandemic began. Since 2019, Lewis and Clark County, for example, has seen rental costs jump 37%, one of the largest spikes in the U.S., according to data from research firm Koster Group published by The Washington Post. Nationally, rents will increase by an average of 11% in 2021.
Rapid growth elsewhere in Montana and the Mountain West has been driven in part by an influx of high-paying remote workers, who are drawn to the wide open spaces and abundant recreational opportunities in communities plagued by housing shortages even before the pandemic. Kalispell, the largest city in Flathead County, is the fastest-growing city in the United States with fewer than 50,000 people, according to Census Bureau data.
Inflation and rising rents are pushing many older Americans to the brink of bankruptcy. According to Ramsey Alwin, president and CEO of the National Council on Aging, the poverty rate for people age 65 and older will increase from 8.9% in 2020 to 10.3% in 2021.
Those who rely on traditional retirement income, such as Social Security, are having trouble affording basic needs, Alwin said. “You’ll find that individuals are often coming up short by about $1,000 a month to meet their true needs,” he said.
As a result, many older people have to make difficult choices about whether to pay for everyday needs like food and medicine or rent. Others simply cannot stretch their money and have to leave their homes. An upcoming 8.7% cost-of-living increase in Social Security benefits will help offset the effects of inflation, which was 8.2% for the 12 months ending in September. But Alwin said that won’t be enough to stem the tide of seniors losing housing due to rising rental prices.
Montana is home to one of the nation’s oldest populations. According to a recent survey of older adults in the state, about 44% struggled with housing in the previous year, and only 10% considered housing affordable.
Emergency homeless shelters in Montana and across the country are reporting that more seniors are showing up at their doors in the past year, many of whom can no longer afford to rent or find new places to live after their homes. They’ve been sold out, said Steve Berg, vice president of programs and policy at the National Alliance to End Homelessness.
Berg said it’s impossible to say how many seniors are becoming homeless for the first time because the national homeless count doesn’t break down the number of people 25 and older into younger age groups, and other data aren’t granular enough to distinguish people who lose housing. First time from chronically homeless older adults.
Community organizers who work directly with homeless people have a deep understanding of how trends are playing out in their area.
At the Poverello Center in Missoula, Montana, people in their 60s become the second largest age group served by the shelter, said program director Lisa Sirois. He said he’s seen people in their 80s and 90s with nowhere to go and the shelter has had to turn some of them away because it wasn’t designed for their needs.
People in wheelchairs have difficulty navigating the narrow hallways, he said, and the shelter’s elevator often breaks down, forcing people to use the stairs to access its shelter. Dorms are lined with bunk beds, which also present challenges.
“No senior clients or people with disabilities can usually afford the top bunk,” Sirois said.
Brian Guyer, director of housing for the Human Resource Development Council Bozeman, said that when his shelter can’t serve a senior, it must ask that person to leave. One memory that still haunts him, he said, is of an elderly man who froze to death three days after being denied a spot at a Bozeman shelter because he was incontinent and had mobility issues. “He was actually found outside a Lowe’s store here in Bozeman,” Guyer said.
And as the elderly homeless population grows, her staff, already overworked and underpaid, can’t care for them all, she said.
To prevent the worst outcomes, state and national groups are proposing several changes.
The Montana Coalition to Solve Homelessness, a new organization that plans to lobby shelter providers during the legislative session beginning in January, wants the state to overhaul its Medicaid program to make shelters eligible for funding. They will use the money to pay for Medicaid services that can help seniors living in shelters or pay for case management services to help seniors navigate benefit programs that provide food assistance and subsidized housing or find assisted living and nursing home facilities.
But the number of spots available at those facilities is shrinking. Nationally, nursing home closings have displaced thousands of residents. In Montana, eight nursing homes have either closed this year or are slated to close by the end of December, according to Montana health officials. Rose Hughes, executive director of the Montana Health Care Association, said other facilities have difficulty keeping their doors open because Medicaid reimbursement rates are often lower than their operating costs.
Other advocacy organizations want to focus on economic stability initiatives that will help older people stay in their homes. One idea is to change how Social Security payments are calculated by pegging them to the Elder Index, an online calculator that estimates the cost of living by location. But this will require the approval of the Congress.
“Your current housing is your best chance to have housing for this population,” said Mark Hinderley, CEO of Hearth, which focuses on homelessness among seniors nationally.
Then there’s increasing housing supply, which most people agree is a long-term solution. In Montana, Republican Gov. Greg Gianforte is proposing policies that would create incentives to encourage the construction of more market-rate apartments. But critics say developers are unlikely to build enough subsidized housing on their own.
For Hilton, any type of open housing unit can’t come soon enough. As he leaned against his truck in the driveway of his now home, he hugged Beatty as she cried on his shoulder before they parted ways.
He drove around looking for a place to camp out, waiting for a call from a local assisted living facility with an opening. He hoped the call would come before winter temperatures settled down.
This story is part of a partnership that includes Montana Public Radio, NPR and KHN.
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