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Homeless shelters are seeing more senior citizens with no place to live

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

As winter sets in, homeless shelters across the country are seeing more senior citizens with no place to live. There's a mix of reasons why. Montana Public Radio's Aaron Bolton reports.

LISA BEATY: Here, put that over there with that hat.

AARON BOLTON, BYLINE: In the small town of Columbia Falls, Mont., 64-year-old Lisa Beaty sorts through piles of clothes, jewelry and family heirlooms she plans to sell because her landlord just doubled the rent.

BEATY: They're not evicting me. It's just that, you know, on a fixed income, I can't do it.

BOLTON: Beaty and her partner Kim Hilton, who's 68, both live on disability payments and can't find a rental they can afford.

KIM HILTON: This moving thing's just really got the both of us.

BEATY: Unfortunately, it's broke us up. Just...

HILTON: We're still going to be friends and everything, but we're going to be, you know, away from each other. And - I don't know. It's - yeah, it's - it hasn't been a good thing.

BOLTON: Beaty is moving into her daughter's one-bedroom apartment. Hilton, who's recovering from a broken leg and has lots of other health issues, is trying to get into an assisted living facility. He plans to live in his truck while he waits for an opening.

HILTON: That light at the end of the tunnel seems like it's going out.

BOLTON: Homeless advocacy groups say this kind of story is playing out across the country, as rents over the past year have skyrocketed, and thousands of seniors have been displaced by nursing home closures during the pandemic. It's impossible to say exactly how fast the elderly homeless population is growing. Counts typically exclude people over 50 as unsheltered populations rarely live past that age. But the mounting crisis is easy to see inside shelters.

LISA SIROIS: This is our women's wing

BOLTON: At the Poverello Center in Missoula, staffer Lisa Sirois says people 60 and older are quickly becoming one of the largest demographics they serve.

SIROIS: We definitely are seeing more and more, like, folks in their 70s. And we've definitely seen some in their 80s or 90s.

BOLTON: Walking the narrow stairwells in crowded rooms full of bunk beds, Sirois says the building simply isn't designed for seniors with mobility issues. Her staff aren't medically trained, and they can't help older guests manage conditions like incontinence.

SIROIS: So really, as soon as someone is unable to make it to the restroom on their own, regularly transfer on their own, really operate independently, we do have to ask them to leave.

BOLTON: Those seniors often have no place to go, says Brian Guyer, who works at the homeless shelter in Bozeman.

BRIAN GUYER: We had to ask this gentleman to find alternative place to stay. And he actually was found outside of a Lowe's store here in Bozeman.

BOLTON: The man had frozen to death. National advocacy groups say the situation didn't develop overnight but is becoming a crisis as Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid have failed to keep up with the true cost of aging for decades. Montana's population is among the oldest in America, and rents in much of the state are increasing much faster than the national average. In the last year, more than 10% of the state's nursing homes have closed. There are efforts to keep Montana's seniors in their homes, but there's broad agreement here that the real long-term solution is building more housing, specifically apartment buildings.

GREG GIANFORTE: When you put more units in a smaller space, costs go down, and units become more affordable. It's no more complicated than that.

BOLTON: That's Montana's Republican governor, Greg Gianforte. He recently convened a task force on the housing crisis and thinks if government regulation is reduced, the free market will generate enough new housing. Advocates for homeless people, like Sean O'Neil, say the free market alone won't provide affordable housing. He favors state and local subsidies.

SEAN O'NEIL: Talking and having those conversations is something we need to have. Otherwise, we're going to keep twiddling our thumbs and hoping that trickle-down housing will come to our seniors and fixed-income folks.

BOLTON: In the meantime, the number of seniors scrambling to find housing, like Kim Hilton and Lisa Beaty, continues to grow.

HILTON: I guess I'm ready there, dearie.

BOLTON: Leaving the apartment they've shared for the last seven years, she gives him a hug.

HILTON: You've done...

BEATY: (Crying) Be careful.

HILTON: You've done so much.

BEATY: (Crying) Be careful.

HILTON: I will.

BOLTON: Hilton reassures her, saying she can help him get settled at an assisted living facility soon. But when that opening will come, no one knows.

(SOUNDBITE OF ENGINE TURNING OVER)

BOLTON: For now, he drives off in search of a place to camp out while he waits for that call.

For NPR News, I'm Aaron Bolton in Columbia Falls, Mont. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Aaron is Montana Public Radio's Flathead reporter.