Once-homeless seniors give their thanks

Liliam Alvarez, 63, is home for Thanksgiving. She plans to set out a holiday dinner on the glass table in her living room and welcome friends into the warmth of her corner apartment — friends who helped her through darker times last winter.

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.

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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.

Olmsted Green, its newest facility, opened in May. The 59 units are furnished by individual donors, meaning that some apartments are better appointed than others. The common areas include such touches as a gym, and a spick-and-span cafeteria, complete with a fireplace. There, last week, some residents dined on roast chicken, potatoes and greens.

“Sometimes people say ‘Wow, this is too nice,’” Hinderlie said. “We’re committed to making people’s living situation as dignified as we can.”

Mohammed Bey, 76, is still getting used to life in Olmsted Green. The longtime taxi driver lived in the house of his ex-wife, and continued to live there after she died, even though the house was not legally his. In August 2011 he was evicted and found himself homeless. He spent some time in a shelter. “That’s the worst place I’ve ever been,” he recalled. In February, he met Meredith Jones, a Hearth outreach worker, who helped him move into Olmsted Green.

“I like it here,” Bey said. Although he misses his blues and rock collection, which he lost when he was forced to move out of the house. But he has his own kitchen, where he can cook his favorite collard greens, chitlins, and pig tails — comfort food that makes it feel like home.

For Marion Davis, 71, who lives downstairs from Bey, part of the challenge of being homeless is that he uses an oxygen tank, which is not allowed in shelters. A career of stripping and waxing floors was a likely cause of his chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Separated from his wife, he rotated in and out of hospitals. “Like a jail house,” he described one of them.

Now, “I feel like I’m in my own house,” he said. “It feels great.”

Alvarez also said she feels grateful for her change in fortune. She has returned to writing, working on a book about what she witnessed when she was homeless.

“I was there to see how people suffered,” she said. “You never know when you will find yourself in their situations.”