North Idaho senior citizens 'being shut out in this economy'

The line for affordable housing has become so long that Lunceford can’t in good conscience give people a timeline for when they can expect to receive housing.

COEUR D’ALENE, Idaho — The rate at which Kootenai County senior citizens are entering into homelessness is on the rise, reports the Coeur d’Alene Press

The Martin family — Gary, his wife, Linda, and daughter Becky — were all living in their car for six months in 2022.

Gary will be 82 in March, his wife is 78, and their daughter, who suffers from seizures, is 48 and takes care of them.

“I wouldn’t recommend living in your car,” Gary Martin said. “There were a lot of times we couldn’t get food, or a place to eat or anything else. We went to the food bank when we could, but we couldn’t store anything because we didn’t have a fridge.”

The Martins moved back to Coeur d’Alene from Montana last April. They consider North Idaho to be their home, and they wanted to be closer to their grandchildren who live in Spirit Lake. They were shocked by the housing prices, which they could not afford, and they ended up living in their van.

“I’ll go out and live in the woods before I ever do that again,” Gary said. “My legs were so swollen because they were frozen and the circulation was bad, you know.”

The Martins invested in a tent and air mattresses when they were able to afford them, although it was difficult for Gary to stand up after lying on the air mattresses.

“I wouldn’t recommend it,” he said. “It made us realize what life was really worth and what it was all about.”

Kelli Lunceford, housing director for St. Vincent de Paul North Idaho, found the Martins an apartment in October to get them off the street.

“Now we’re doing good, we’re healthy,” Gary said. “We really love our apartment. We’re crowded, you know, we have a lot of junk. But we’re happy.”

St. Vincent de Paul manages 300 affordable housing units. The waitlist is typically around six months.

“In the last couple years, it’s been about a year to two years,” Lunceford said. “And this year we’ve had to close our waitlist.”

The line for affordable housing has become so long that Lunceford can’t in good conscience give people a timeline for when they can expect to receive housing.

“For the first time in a dozen years, I’ve seen the elderly start to be chronically homeless,” Lunceford said.

St. Vincent de Paul is a housing alternative to independent-living facilities, which are having similar surges in demand as people seek affordable housing.

Orchard Ridge Senior Living in Coeur d’Alene has a one- to five-year waitlist for government-subsidized affordable housing, Executive Director Ann Johnson said, and that’s pretty typical. Prices in the private assisted living section of Orchard Ridge have increased to cover rising costs of wages and expenses, but rates are fixed by the government for independent living and the supply is low.

Over the last 10 years, the population of people 65 and older in Kootenai County has increased 67%, according to Sam Wolkenhauer, regional labor economist for the Idaho Department of Labor. That’s 14,783 more seniors now than in 2012.

The number of nursing and residential care facilities has only gone up 18% in the same time, according to the Department of Labor.

“Jobs in this sector are up about 17% over the decade, but they are down about 5% from the pre-COVID level,” Wolkenhauer said.

Those numbers indicate a steady increase in demand for skilled labor in assisted living or residential care facilities, with a sudden drop in supply since 2020.

“The biggest issue is we haven’t had placement in (senior) facilities for a year,” said Jan Young, ombudsman for the Area Agency on Aging. “They just simply are not admitting. So what are these people going to do if they don’t have family members?”

Not only are facilities not admitting new residents or patients, but they’re also having to evict existing ones.

“One thing that is happening is a lot of residents in (assisted living or skilled nursing) facilities right now are getting discharge notices and there’s nowhere for them to go,” Young said. “It’s not because they’re full, it’s because staffing is not up to par. If a facility doesn’t have the staffing to meet the needs of all the residents, they give them a discharge notice.”

Some families can’t take care of seniors with behavioral or nursing needs, and it falls on nursing or assisted living facilities to find a place for seniors to go.

“Every day we get five or more calls of residents that have been discharged from a facility or are trying to get into a facility,” Young said. “As we see better weather, we’ll see people deciding to live in their car.”

When elderly people are discharged, they can sometimes be sent to local hospitals by nursing facilities, but the hospitals aren’t set up to care for them long-term, Young said.

Hospitals are also full, short-staffed and not equipped for long-term senior care, said Kim Anderson, communications director for Kootenai Health.

“The other issue is the rate that Medicaid pays is low,” Young said. “They need to come up to where a facility wants to take on a resident who is on Medicaid. Unless the state does something about the Medicaid rate, I see this getting worse.”

Another factor is assisted living or senior housing is often expensive, even for people who have savings or a financial buffer built up over a lifetime.

“Eventually, everybody runs out of money and they’re on Medicaid,” Young said.

Heritage Health Street Medicine and Community Outreach Services has also seen an increase in seniors and elderly individuals becoming homeless.

The Street Medicine program helps people who are unhoused navigate their way to services and eventually homes.

Within the past few months, Street Medicine program coordinator Two Feathers was called to help a woman whose landlord raised her rent, which she wasn’t able to pay with her fixed income. Her home was turned into an Airbnb and she found herself looking at the possibility of living on the street at 87 years old.

Two Feathers immediately went to her aid, but found his hands tied in many ways. She needed things that were legally difficult for Street Medicine staff to provide, like to be lifted in and out of a truck, or access to nursing care.

It’s a scenario Two Feathers said he has never previously witnessed.

Local support systems like the Street Medicine program are seeing the changing face of homelessness. Many of the people needing help are now often over 50, Two Feathers said.

“I would say we’re seeing five to 10 new faces a week,” said Kala Hall, a Street Medicine case manager. And of those, she said, all are over 50.

The Outreach and Community Services department has a large network of services within the Heritage Health umbrella, but no easy access to resources for seniors who might need nursing facilities.

In the past, that hasn’t been a need, Hall said. They hadn’t seen people over 70 facing homelessness.

The elderly people seeking services at Heritage Health are usually locals, Hall said. People who were born in Kootenai County, or have lived here for many years, are seeing rents go up as housing supplies drop.

“We’re finding that apartment complexes, large-scale developments, are being sold to out-of-state owners,” Reilly said. “They’re jacking up rents a lot more than an elderly person is able to perform.”

Average housing rental rates in Kootenai County are up 25% since 2020, according to a data tool on the Washington Post’s website.

“I haven’t seen this in at least the last decade,” Reilly said. “It hasn’t been like this. What we’re seeing here in Kootenai County, we know if there’s a landlord who would charge $700 on a studio apartment, they’ll slap some paint on the walls and make a couple upgrades and rent will go up to $1,200. When you’re an elderly person on fixed income, you can’t afford that.”

Seniors dependent on federal support systems are also suffering from bureaucratic struggles, Lunceford said.

This month, Social Security benefits will increase 8.7% in a record-breaking cost of living adjustment, but that adjustment often bumps seniors out of the income bracket to qualify for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits.

For affordable housing, seniors have to pay one-third of their income, so they pay more in rent, and many lose access to other financial support.

As economic factors contribute to a higher cost-of-living, local support services are seeing the elderly in the most vulnerable positions.

“There are some things you can cut back on, but people who have cut back already can’t cut back anymore,” Reilly said.

Support systems begin at age 62 or 65 to help provide seniors with affordable housing, but people younger than 62 have fewer resources to prevent evictions.

“How does an elderly person on an extremely low fixed income improve their lot in life?” Reilly said. “They can’t. These golden agers have been called our Greatest Generation, yet they’re being shut out in this economy.”

The Coeur d’Alene Press is a KREM 2 news partner. For more from our partners, click here.

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