74-Year-Old Phoenix Woman Became Homeless After $50 Rent Increase

Grace's bed at Central Arizona Shelter Services, in downtown Phoenix.
Grace's bed at Central Arizona Shelter Services, in downtown Phoenix. Elizabeth Whitman
Earlier this summer, her rent rose by $50, and 74-year-old Grace became homeless for the first time in her life.

Grace, who requested that Phoenix New Times use a pseudonym and withhold other identifying information because she did not want her family to know of her homelessness, said that the senior apartment complex where she lived announced the increase a few months prior. Instead of paying $600 a month for her one-bedroom apartment, she would have to pay $650, Grace recalled.

The landlords had raised the rent by similar amounts in previous years, but this time, the increase would put Grace over the edge. Her monthly Social Security check of slightly more than $1,000 wasn't enough, not when it also had to cover car insurance, phone bills, groceries, and life's other necessities.

So Grace put in her one-month notice, and as the clock ticked, began looking for a new apartment. She visited at least two dozen complexes in search of a vacancy, but everywhere she looked, either the prices were too high, or no apartments were available.

In late spring, she packed up her belongings and put them in a storage unit for $100 a month. Sometime around then, she also sold her car, to save herself the insurance payments. She moved into a motel, where she stayed for three weeks, until she ran out of money.

Grace spent the next three nights at the bus station at Dunlap Avenue and 3rd Street — the Sunnyslope Transit Terminal.

"I just sat there until it got really, really quiet, and then I'd nod off," Grace said.

Finally, she found the Central Arizona Shelter Services, in downtown Phoenix, which she'd heard of but had trouble getting to. "I'd never been homeless before," Grace said. "I didn't even know where to start."

Grace now sleeps on a small cot in the women’s section of CASS. She spends days at the nearby Justa Center, a daytime facility for homeless seniors.

One morning in late August, she sat in the Justa Center’s outdoor patio, taking quivering drags from Senecas and reflecting on it all. She wore a pink shirt and pink capris with flowers, with clean black flats stretched over her feet. White hairs, collected neatly in a ponytail, sprouted from her sunburnt scalp.

click to enlarge The patio outside the Justa Center. - ELIZABETH WHITMAN
The patio outside the Justa Center.
Elizabeth Whitman

“I want outta here so bad,” Grace said.

Her new life — trying to sleep in the noisy shelter, where her cot is closest to the clanging exit door, where people call her "Grandma," where a number of guests are mentally ill, where the showers are scalding hot, and which she must leave by 7 every morning — made Grace question herself. She describes herself as “feisty,” but she says she also is becoming foul-mouthed, and feels her fortitude increasingly stretched.

“I don’t know who this person is,” she said. “I’ve turned into a bitch.”

Grace had no felonies, nor had she ever been evicted, she said. Before she retired, she had a good job, at a managerial level. She'd never even had a parking ticket, she said proudly. Now, she would gladly take "half a garage" to live in.

The two or three months she’s been homeless, Grace said, have felt like 10 years.

Silver Wave

Elderly women like Grace represent a growing but overlooked contingent among Arizona’s homeless, amid unprecedented rates of homelessness among seniors nationwide.

In Arizona, the majority of the state’s homeless live in Maricopa County — about two-thirds in any given year, federal data in state reports show. In 2014, of the 17,558 homeless people in Maricopa County, 4 percent were 62 or older. By 2016, the last year that these annual reports included such detailed data, that proportion had risen to 6 percent, or nearly 1,300 homeless seniors.

These data are not broken down by gender, but local shelters and homeless centers report a rise in the number of Baby Boomer seniors walking through their doors.

The Justa Center, where Grace spends her days, is open to homeless people 55 and older, from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m., seven days a week. It offers hot meals, showers, laundry, and help finding housing. Seniors set their belongings within arm’s reach and sit under the dim lighting at long rows of folding tables, talking, reading, trying to pass the time. A few escape outside to a walled side yard, braving the sun to catch a few minutes alone.

As homeless people, seniors are especially vulnerable. They are more likely than younger adults to have chronic conditions or other physical illnesses and disabilities, diseases like dementia or Alzheimer’s, or age-related issues like memory loss. Living in a home with any one of these conditions is challenging enough, but surviving on the street?

“We need to shelter seniors in much the same way we shelter children,” said Wendy Johnson, the center’s director.

click to enlarge The Justa Center, in downtown Phoenix. - ELIZABETH WHITMAN
The Justa Center, in downtown Phoenix.
Elizabeth Whitman
Johnson said she sees women enduring their first bout of homelessness at older ages than men. The number of elderly women — people in their 70s, or 80s — whom the center serves is rising more quickly than the number of men, she added.

In 2015, the Justa Center served 147 women, seven of them in their 70s and just one in her 80s. That year, it also took in 290 men, also with seven in their 70s and one in his 80s.

In the first eight months of 2019, the center took in 134 women. Of those women, 13 were in their 70s. Three were in their 80s. Over the same period, the center served 283 men. None were in their 80s, and 20 were in their 70s.

According to the Arizona Department of Economic Security’s 2016 annual report on homelessness — the last such report to contain detailed statistics — the most common cause in Maricopa County was "economic" factors, cited by 20 percent of those surveyed. Eviction was the second most common, cited by 12 percent of those surveyed.

For senior women, the economic picture is bleak, the threat of poverty high.

In the U.S., the majority of unpaid caregivers are women, and they are more likely to take time off from paid work to raise children, according to a December report on poverty and aging women by the non-profit advocacy group Justice in Aging.

When women do have paid jobs, a gender wage gap of at least 20 percent exacerbates the wealth disparity, the report adds. By being paid less for the same work, women can’t contribute as much to Social Security, and they have a harder time saving for retirement.

As Grace knows all too well, every dollar counts.

Not Enough Beds

There is never a good time or place to be homeless, but in the Valley, now is an especially fraught time, and especially for seniors.

Shelter beds are in short supply, as is funding for services for the homeless. Earlier this summer, the Justa Center laid off several employees and cut staff hours before nearly closing its doors, until an 11th-hour donation in late August bought it another year to operate.

A dearth of affordable housing in Maricopa County means people can spend months, even years, on waiting lists for an apartment. In the summer, the triple-digit heat can be deadly.

In March, a report by the National Low-Income Housing Coalition, a think tank and advocacy group, showed that for people with extremely low incomes, Arizona has the third most-severe shortage of rental housing in the country, with a deficit of more than 153,000 homes. Among cities, the Phoenix metro area tied for sixth place for the same dubious distinction.

"I am so sick of the word 'luxury.'" — Grace, 74 and homeless

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Meanwhile, rents are rising in Maricopa County. A recent report by the real estate company Zillow found that rents in the Phoenix metro area rose 6 percent in the last quarter, over the same quarter the previous year — more than anywhere else in the country.

But seniors on fixed incomes, like Grace, can’t afford to pay more.

Grace requested that New Times not publish the name of the senior apartment complex at 41st Avenue and West Thomas Road where she used to live. But New Times did call the complex's business and leasing offices, where a woman who refused to say which department she worked in said that every year, on July 1, the complex raises rent.

The amount depends on how much the complex's out-of-state owners decide, she said, but last year, it was "$40, $50."

The rent, which includes utilities, is $613 to $643 for a studio apartment, $695 to $737 for a one-bedroom, and $823 to $939 for a two-bedroom. Residents also have to pay a $500 security deposit, she said.

When asked whether people move out because of the rent increase, the woman said, "Yeah, some have." She didn't have numbers, she said, because "we don't keep track of that."

Johnson estimated that the majority of people who use the Justa Center receive Social Security checks of about $700 a month.

When people do lose housing and they can't afford to stay in a hotel or a motel, their options are extremely limited.

The latest county-wide shelter and housing inventory from the Maricopa Association of Governments shows that Maricopa County has 12,297 beds — a mix of permanent housing, emergency and longer-term shelter beds, and other types of subsidized housing. But the vast majority of those are taken, the inventory indicates.

Last year, the Central Arizona Shelter Services, or CASS, where Grace sleeps, began collecting data on the number of people it turned away for lack of beds. In one month alone, it found that it denied beds to 500 people.

click to enlarge The entrance to the Central Arizona Shelter Services. - ELIZABETH WHITMAN
The entrance to the Central Arizona Shelter Services.
Elizabeth Whitman
Longer-term housing is similarly overburdened. Included in the county-wide inventory are 1,600 permanent homes for adults without children and 300 homes for families, funded by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, or HUD.

“Those units are filled,” said Anne Scott, a human services planner at the Maricopa Association of Governments. “They’re people that were homeless and now are in those units. So they don’t really turn over very often.”

Last year, the Maricopa Association of Governments received slightly more than $28 million from HUD, according to Scott. Some of that goes to planning and data collection, but the vast majority goes to helping people pay rent. That federal funding increases every year, but it’s never enough, she said.

“Our homeless population is one of the fastest growing in the country,” Scott said. “We are super grateful for what we’ve got, but they’re not keeping pace with the need we see in the community.”

Meanwhile, service centers and shelters are unprepared to help seniors like Grace.

Every year, as a requirement to receive HUD funding, the Maricopa Association of Governments leads a street count of homelessness, known as the point-in-time count. Those data aren’t precise enough to show changes in the number of seniors. Instead, the trend is emerging anecdotally.
click to enlarge The point-in-time count show the number of sheltered and unsheltered homeless people in Maricopa County on a single night every year. - MARICOPA ASSOCIATION OF GOVERNMENTS
The point-in-time count show the number of sheltered and unsheltered homeless people in Maricopa County on a single night every year.
Maricopa Association of Governments
“We have heard that a lot of older adults are showing up in the system,” Scott said.

Tammy Pancoast, Justa Center’s housing resource specialist, helps clients apply for housing. She encourages them to endure months of waiting on multiple lists and improve their shot of getting an apartment, because the Valley has too little subsidized housing for people 62 and older, she said.

“Bottom line is, they need to build more affordable housing,” Pancoast said.

Shelter Life

At CASSs, the vast room where Grace sleeps is arranged in prison-style cubicles, with two beds apiece, separated by waist-high cinderblock walls.

Three pairs of shoes sit on the floor below Grace’s cot. Her belongings are tucked into a single drawer on its underside. A few feet away, a metal door slams shut every time someone passes through to go outside for a smoke. The ceiling, some 20 feet high, looks crusty with grime; it hasn’t seen a renovation in 10 or 15 years.

“It’s toughening us up,” Grace said. “This is home, such as it is.”

CASS is the largest emergency shelter in Arizona. It sits on the gated, non-profit Human Services Campus at South 12th Avenue and West Madison Street, which also has a dental clinic, a medical clinic, mental health services, homeless court, a weather relief shelter, and a dining hall. On a recent afternoon outside the shelter entrance, men and women roamed or sat on a green carpet of fake grass.

Lisa Glow, CASS’s CEO and a lawyer who was a senior policy adviser to Governor Janet Napolitano, described homelessness among seniors as a thorny, looming crisis.

“Our biggest concern is the growing number of seniors becoming homeless,” she said. “As rents rise, homelessness rises, because people get evicted,” especially those on a fixed income, she added.

Recent research led by Dennis Culhane, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, projects that the number of homeless people who are 65 and older will more than double in the coming decade. That study focuses on New York City, Boston, and Los Angeles County, but it’s hard to imagine the Valley will be exempt from this trend.

Local homeless shelters and centers, already stretching their budgets to the limits even as they cut staff pay and hours or leave ceilings gritty with crud, are ill-equipped to handle this surge.

click to enlarge The outer, eastern wall of the Justa Center. - ELIZABETH WHITMAN
The outer, eastern wall of the Justa Center.
Elizabeth Whitman
“The challenges are very different, and the barriers are very big for a senior who becomes homeless,” Glow said. “The system needs an overhaul.”

Some transitional shelters and housing projects in and around Phoenix are specifically for the elderly, but the area has no emergency shelters for the same demographic. CASS would like to build one in the West Valley, Glow said, but plans are in the early stages of attracting funders and garnering political support.

But as people working directly with the homeless — people like Johnson, Pancoast, Glow — are calling for more affordable housing for seniors, more shelter beds, or more funding, efforts by state and local officials to address the crisis have been lackluster.

The state has no fund dedicated to affordable housing. In fact, a law passed in 2015 effectively bans cities and towns from requiring developers to build any. In May, for the first time since 2012, the Arizona Legislature allocated $10 million in new money for the Housing Trust Fund, which helps low-income families.

In April, the Arizona Department of Housing quietly launched a pilot eviction-prevention program. It would help about 400 families in Maricopa County, in a pared-down version of an effort that was supposed to roll out months before.

Searching for a home

After more than three months of homelessness, Grace called her grandson, swearing him to secrecy and asking for his help. She'd been searching for apartments on foot, by bus, and occasionally, with her CASS caseworker, without any luck so far.

Last Saturday, she and her grandson, who has a car, took their first trip together to go apartment hunting. Instead of using the CASS-provided list of housing options — which includes the complex where she used to live, Grace noted with disgust — she looked for "For Rent" signs.

One of the problems she keeps running into, besides the lack of affordable housing, are the exorbitant fees — application fees, holding fees — without the guarantee of an apartment. Another issue is the income requirement, usually two to three times rent — an impossible amount for someone with a guaranteed but paltry $1,000 in monthly Social Security income.

As Grace pointed out, that amount puts her at the poverty line.

"I just keep running into walls," she said. "I am so sick of the word 'luxury.'"

She and her grandson plan to go out apartment hunting again this Saturday. "He knows I'm a tough old bird," she said. "And I am."
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Elizabeth Whitman was a staff writer for Phoenix New Times from March 2019 to April 2020.