The Tufts Health Plan Foundation sat down with Mark Hinderlie, president & CEO of Hearth, to talk about why elder homelessness is such an important issue and identify some of the risk factors that force people into homelessness.

THPF: Why is elder homelessness such an important issue for Massachusetts?

Q&A with Hearth’s Mark Hinderlie

Mark Hinderlie, President & CEO of Hearth

Hinderlie: The often ignored population of homeless older adults presents, interestingly, a real opportunity to solve a shameful social problem for which we already spend a lot of money without solving the problem! While the actual number of homeless older adults in Massachusetts is around 1,800 at any given point of time, and around 2,800 total over the course of a year, this population is not only growing, but also costs a disproportionate amount due to high utilization of hospital ER visits and hospitalizations, not to mention direct shelter costs. A recent state funded study showed a cost savings of $10,000 on average from Medicaid savings alone by housing chronically homeless individuals including the cost of their housing and the services they required. And we know what it takes: Hearth’s permanent supportive housing and outreach programs have housed close to 1,900 homeless or at-risk older adults since our beginnings 20 years ago.

THPF: What are the common risk factors that lead to elder homelessness?

Hinderlie: While many factors may lead to elder homelessness, the most significant ones include physical and/or mental disabling conditions, lack of income, catastrophic medical events, loss of spouse, and loss of job, among very many others. Significantly, one third of Baby Boomers have negative net worth, so loss of job and low levels of Social Security or SSI/SSID benefits can result in homelessness. Moreover, Massachusetts has the highest gap (over $10,000 per year!) between a bare bones budget required to keep a senior in independent housing and meet the other basic costs of life, and the median income of seniors. This means many, many more elders are at risk.

THPF: How do Hearth’s outreach services help elders find supportive housing?

Hinderlie: Hearth’s Outreach Program has six case managers, including an at-risk case manager, who visit area shelters on a regular basis to assist elders in navigating the incredibly complex pathways to finding affordable housing. This includes establishing trustful relationships with people who often have deep reasons to doubt a helper’s intentions; helping obtain needed documentation of birth, immigration status, prior housing records and photo ID’s to name a few; helping to identify potential landlords and persuade them to accept homeless individuals; helping to apply successfully to local housing authorities; and helping individuals connect with mainstream services they may need, such as finding a primary care physician. And, once housed, we provide stabilization services to ensure they have all the resources and support they need to remain safely housed.

THPF: What can others do to help combat this problem?

Hinderlie: Ultimately, the problem of homelessness is unnecessary because smart public policy could result in better outcomes for homeless people – a home of their own, better health outcomes, independence to name a few – at less cost than we are currently spending. So, all of us who care about this non-partisan issue can feel good about advocating with our elected and appointed officials to implement the recommendations of the Massachusetts plan to end homelessness, and particularly to support the recommendations which will be forthcoming shortly of the special Elder Task Force on Elder Homelessness of the Interagency Council on Housing and Homelessness. Finally, of course, Hearth absolutely relies on the support of caring people to continue our work.

This story was published originally in the Tufts Health Plan Foundation’s November 2013 newsletter.