Senate vote may help shelter homeless seniors downtown and beyond

A man who lives primarily on the streets of downtown Phoenix holds up his hand to display a ring he found that he's taken to wearing. (Anya Magnuson/DD)
A man who lives primarily on the streets of downtown Phoenix holds up his hand to display a ring he found that he's taken to wearing. (Anya Magnuson/DD)

By: Erin Brassey and Erica Shipione

Senators unanimously voted Tuesday to set Bill 1283 in motion, which would distribute $5 million from the state general fund to build the first shelter in western Maricopa County. 

Lisa Glow, chief executive officer of Central Arizona Shelter Services (CASS), said Maricopa County has the highest number of people left unsheltered in the state and many are senior citizens. 

Over 1,000 of those seniors were served in CASS’s downtown shelters last year. 

Glow named the issue of the growing homeless senior population and said, “the crisis of the silver tsunami is here.” 

Republican Sen. David Livingston introduced the bill, making him its sponsor, and shared his reasons behind it.

“Unfortunately, the economy is going great and unemployment is really low, but we still have homeless,” Livingston said. “Right now, we can spend the money on this social program.”

Even with an economy on the rise, seniors can find themselves without a home because of one medical bill or the loss of a job.

The difference between Arizona’s average rent and a social security check is a few hundred dollars, which can make it difficult for seniors to pay rent and cover basic living expenses.

Glow addressed the unique issues faced by homeless seniors.

“They have profound needs that are different than the rest of the population,” Glow said. “They stay in shelters longer. They need longer to resolve their homelessness.”

Seniors also do not qualify for federal assistance programs, such as the rapid rehousing dollars, due to being new to homelessness, Glow explained. Rapid rehousing provides people with financial assistance to cover move-in costs, deposits, rent or utility costs.

Twenty-nine percent of people sheltered by CASS in 2019 were seniors and, on average, seniors spend two weeks longer in shelters as compared to non-seniors, according to CASS.

Homelessness in general is a huge problem in downtown Phoenix and senior citizens are the fastest growing group of unsheltered individuals.

CASS shelters turn away between 350 to 500 people searching for shelter in downtown Phoenix every month, Glow said. 

Cosponsor of the bill, Democratic Sen. Lela Alston, explained in an email that seniors are also “the most vulnerable” of the homeless population.

Sixty-nine percent of seniors have disabilities, making it harder for them to recover from homelessness, according to CASS.

Assistant Pastor at North Mountain Christian Assembly Cleo Lewis testified as a man who has experienced homelessness.

“Sometimes we look at seniors as the people that baked our cookies,” Lewis said. “But when you have a senior that’s homeless, they’re in so much despair.”

Glow said that, with this bill passing, more room will become available in downtown Phoenix shelters, achieving the ultimate goal of decreasing the number of those without a bed at night. 

“This bill is going to give us an avenue of hope,” Lewis said. “Seniors are at the end of their lifespans and they deserve love and compassion.”

Contact the reporters at [email protected] and [email protected].

Correction: Feb. 6 2020: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that there is a two year waiting list to be sheltered by CASS.