Over the next decade, the number of elderly homeless Americans is projected to triple — and that was before Covid-19 hit. In Phoenix, the crisis has already arrived.
Miles Oliver’s troubles began in April when he had to choose between making his monthly car payment and paying his rent. He chose the car, based on a logical calculation: Without a car, he could drive to work, meaning no money for rent regardless. Oliver came to Arizona from Chicago more than 30 years ago as an Army recruit at Fort Huachuca, the storied military post wedged into shrublands in the southeastern part of the state, just a 15-mile hike from the Mexico border. He grew to love Arizona — the dry air, the seemingly endless sunshine, the sense of possibility for someone looking for a new start. He moved to Phoenix and built a life for himself there. Now it was all falling apart.
His car, a navy blue 2007 Ford Fusion for which he paid $230 a month, was his lifeline. It took him to whatever day jobs he cobbled together each week, most of them in construction, and allowed him to bring in extra cash on weekends delivering pizza for Papa John’s. February was slow, and March was slower, so when his $830 April rent came due, Oliver was short. The apartment complex’s office had closed because of the pandemic, and he had no idea how to reach the manager to ask for extra time. What he received, by mail, was an ultimatum: Pay up or go to court.
As he watched the city shut down around him, Oliver worried that he might not be able to find a new place to live or enough work to keep ongoing. But when he stood up in front of a county court justice in April, he learned that the pandemic did have a silver lining: Gov. Doug Ducey, the judge explained, had declared a moratorium on evictions for renters who met certain qualifications. Oliver perused the allowable excuses: quarantine forced by a positive diagnosis or symptoms common to Covid-19 infections; the loss of a job or wages because of the coronavirus; or certain conditions that put you more at risk of contracting it than the average person. Oliver is diabetic and has sleep apnea. He is also old enough to qualify for senior-citizen discounts. Suddenly, health and age, the obstacles that had increasingly stood in the way of him finding more work, seemed to be his saving grace.
But there was a problem. Tenants must notify landlords in writing and provide documentation supporting their request for a rent reprieve, but Oliver says the employment agency where he was registered as a day laborer refused to get involved. “Should I write my own?” he wondered at the time, not knowing where to go for help.
On April 26, he arrived home to find a constable affixing a writ of restitution — essentially an order granting the landlord possession of the apartment — to his front door. “Go in and grab what you can,” a police officer on standby told him. Oliver’s chest felt cold, he says, “like I’d swallowed an ice bucket.” He stepped inside and gathered a few items he could not live without a bottle of metformin, prescribed to control his blood sugar; a pair of reading glasses; some socks and underwear; his deodorant, and a toothbrush. On his way out, he asked the constable, “What am I supposed to do?” The constable shrugged.
He got in his car and started to drive, unsure where to go. He couldn’t think of any friends he knew well enough to offer him a place to stay. He definitely wasn’t going to call his ex-wife, and he figured this was not a good time to try to mend his relationship with his older son, from whom he had been estranged for years. His younger son lived with roommates and was in no position to help.
As the skies darkened, he eased into a parking spot on the edge of Tempe Town Lake, where people take early-evening yoga classes on paddleboards, and decided it was a good enough place to spend the night.
He lived in his car for about a month, sleeping by the lake, outside a Jack in the Box, and in the parking lot of a QuikTrip convenience store, where he collapsed one day; he was severely dehydrated. The heat this time of year in and around Phoenix is not just relentless but also deadly. Oliver was afraid of what it could do to him. And then there was all this talk about the coronavirus, how it was sickening and killing older people like him. The shuttered stores and empty strip-mall parking lots were constant reminders of the virus lurking all around him. People were being told to stay home, but he didn’t have a home. Because of the pandemic, the places he could go for a respite from the heat had all closed: public libraries, community centers, fast-food-restaurant dining rooms. Even the city’s air-conditioned buses had limits on how many people could ride them.
Late in June, Oliver’s car stopped running. He left it parked where it was, outside the emergency shelter for veterans where he lived for a few weeks. He had tried to find work while there, but finding work in the middle of a pandemic, when you’re older and don’t have a car, proved to be a challenge he couldn’t overcome. In early August, he tried to get a bed at Central Arizona Shelter Services, the largest shelter in the state, but there were no beds available. A nearby hotel started housing older homeless adults in June, but Oliver couldn’t get in.
Oliver was born at the tail end of the baby boom, when American families celebrated postwar prosperity by having more children than ever before — 72.5 million between 1946 and 1964, or nearly 40 percent of the population of the United States at the time. Many of those children went on to live stable, successful lives. Others teetered on the edge as they aged, working jobs that didn’t come with 401(k) plans or pensions and didn’t pay enough to build a nest egg, always one misfortune away from losing all they had. Amid the pandemic, many of them are now facing homelessness, at an age when they are often too old to be attractive to employers but are not old enough to collect Social Security.
Policymakers had decades to prepare for this momentous demographic shift, but the social safety net has only frayed under a relentless political pressure to slash funding for programs that senior citizens rely on to make ends meet, like subsidized housing, food, and health care. “It’s the first thing fiscally conservative people want to cut,” says Wendy Johnson, executive director of Justa Center in Phoenix, the only daytime resource center in the state set up exclusively for older homeless adults. “But this is every single senior to whom we promised that if they paid into the system, we’d take care of them.”