That was when Alvarez found herself homeless, walking the streets, frightened and alone in the February chill, and waiting for a bed at the Pine Street Inn.
Alvarez, a former Spanish teacher and a published author, had joined the growing population of homeless seniors, a problem that is especially acute in Boston, with its high cost of living.
Homelessness among people 65 and older is projected to grow nationwide by 33 percent by 2020 and double by 2050, according to a 2010 report by the National Alliance to End Homelessness. Older homeless people face a particular challenge: They tend to be beyond their employment years, and therefore less likely to find a way to support themselves.
“Elder homelessness is growing at an alarming rate as baby boomers age in this challenging economy,” said Mark Hinderlie, president of Hearth, a Boston nonprofit that helps find housing for people 55 and older who are homeless or at risk of becoming homeless.
In Massachusetts, single senior citizens often find themselves in difficult circumstances. Hinderlie cited 2011 statistics that suggest seniors living alone in the state needed $27,048 to cover basic living costs, but that the median income for that group is $16,800 — the widest such gap in the country.
Alvarez provides a striking example of how a senior suddenly can slip into homelessness. For most of her three decades in the United States, she was an immigrant success story. After arriving as a refugee from Cuba in 1980 with her husband and baby, she made a career as a Spanish teacher at a Somerville charter school. She published a book of inspirational sayings in English and Spanish. She was pulling a 3.8 grade point average working toward an associate’s degree.
But she lost the job in 2006. Her husband died of cancer. She went to Florida “to make a new start.” But it did not work out, in part because Alvarez, who has asthma, had trouble breathing in the humid climate. She moved back to the Boston area, hoping to live with her daughter, but the managers of the apartment would not let her stay. She had nowhere to go.
“Things didn’t really happen the way that I thought,” Alvarez said as she sat in a plush easy chair in the corner of her one-bedroom apartment in Olmsted Green. The complex is run by Hearth, which targets a population of older homeless people that it says has grown to 1,200 in Boston.
Hearth houses people in seven complexes in the Boston area, relying on a combination of public funding and private donations. It guides homeless seniors through the complex, sometimes months-long process of getting into permanent housing.
They need to show bank statements, proof of income and benefits such as social security, and proof of homelessness. It also helps them negotiate the challenges of staying in their new homes. Residents sign a lease and are responsible for paying one-third of their income toward rent. The rest is provided by subsidies.
The organization offers such services as on-site nursing, social work, personal care, and meals.
Hearth has 196 units, which are currently full, Hinderlie said. He estimates that an additional 700 seniors are on waiting lists for permanent housing. Hearth tries to place them in other affordable housing sites around the city. Continued...