Seniors are the fastest growing group of homeless people in Vancouver, but shelters can be a risky option for them.
They are more susceptible to catch diseases in overcrowded shelters, as well as to be victims of predatory behaviour, like theft or assault, say those who work with them.
In winter months, as shelters take in greater numbers, the risks seniors face increase.
“There are people out there who will be trying to take advantage of them,” said Jeremy Hunka from the United Gospel Mission, a shelter in the Downtown Eastside.
Seniors who receive government assistance are particularly vulnerable. Hunka says some shelter residents know when the seniors are getting their pension or welfare cheques.
“Sometimes these people will befriend seniors trying to use them for their own gain,” he said.
To combat this, staff at the UGM try to get seniors more permanent solutions to their homelessness.
“Our caseworkers will make it a priority to get them out of our emergency shelter into something more stable as quickly as possible,” said Hunka. In the meantime, UGM staff will physically separate seniors from anyone who is known for or suspected of predatory behaviour.
But despite the shelter’s efforts to protect seniors, Hunka says that shame prevents some people from reporting abuse.
And not all dangers seniors face in shelters are predatory.
According to Dr. Jennifer Gardy of the B.C. Centre for Disease Control, living conditions for homeless seniors also have a detrimental effect on health.
“When we’re thinking about our aging population, the biggest risk is not being regularly connected with health care to spot those chronic diseases,” said Gardy. “Because they’re in the shelter system, they might not be connected with regular health care [so] these chronic conditions will go unrecognized and untreated.”
“Living on the streets, being undernourished, being under-housed, can all contribute to a less effective immune system,” said Gardy. A weakened immune system is particularly dangerous to seniors living in shelters, where closed quarters and proximity make it easier for disease to spread.
This can lead to serious respiratory infections such as colds, the flu and tuberculosis being transmitted, especially in shelters that don’t have proper ventilation.
As seniors increasingly use shelters, these issues are likely to get worse.
The Greater Vancouver Shelter Strategy Society estimates nearly one in four shelter residents will be 55 or older this year. In 2014, there were 371 homeless seniors using shelters, compared to only 51 in 2002.
“People that were once middle of the road are no longer middle of the road,” said Dave Brown, a community services manager with the Lookout Emergency Aid Society. “They’re impoverished and losing what they have, [so] they come knocking on our door.”
The increase of seniors in shelters comes from both a rising number of newly homeless, as well as the continued homelessness of people who have been in shelters and on the streets for years, according to the shelter strategy society.
“When the cost of everything is going up and government assistance isn’t keeping up that creates a lot of pressures and it pushes some people to places where they never thought they’d be,” said Hunka.