Over the Edge: Older Adult Homelessness in Contemporary America

Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five helped birth Hip Hop with their 1982 song “The Message.” The catchy refrain, “Don’t push me cause I’m close to the edge,” described the state of mind of a generation of young people managing the stresses of economically hard times. In far catchier language than a homelessness researcher might use, the song describes dilapidated housing, unemployment, limited educational opportunities, inflation and mass incarceration.

This was 1980s America as Melle Mel, a featured rapper on the song, saw it. Back then he was 21 years old. Today he is 60 and part of a generation of people whose numbers are dramatically growing within homelessness. What are the reasons for the trend? Well … many of the answers can be found in “The Message.”

Rising Homelessness for Older Adults

In the period leading up to the pandemic, overall homelessness was on the rise. By January 2020, there had been four straight years of population growth, resulting in 580,466 people living in shelters and unsheltered locations.

Homelessness numbers also were increasing for older adults. Between 2013 and 2017, the ages 62 and older population in shelters grew by 51 percent. This generation of older adults was also inhabiting an increasing share of permanent supportive housing beds (currently the most common form of homeless assistance).

‘SOME MEMBERS OF THIS GROUP NEVER FULLY RECOVERED FROM THESE CHALLENGES THAT DEFINED THEIR ENTRY INTO ADULTHOOD.’

Researchers project continued and significant growth in older adult homelessness across the next decade. Focusing on major cities, they estimated that numbers will more than double as late-born Baby Boomers continue to age into this group. This phenomenon will be even more prevalent in certain communities. For instance, in Boston, it was estimated that the older adult homeless population will triple from 570 people in 2017 to roughly 1,560 by 2030.

If the United States fails to address this challenge, a disproportionate share of the older adults sleeping on cots in homeless shelters will likely be Black. According to the nationwide Point-in-Time count, Black people make up 39 percent of the homeless population, but only 12 percent of the general population. Such disparities are the standard in communities across America and are evident in other groups such as American Indians and Pacific Islanders.

Rough Starts to Adulthood

Melle Mel was the voice of a generation that came of age during difficult times. There were multiple recessions tied to high unemployment rates. Just when they were needed most, cuts were being made to jobs and anti-poverty programs. And the era of the War on Drugs and mass incarceration began in earnest. Some members of this group never fully recovered from these challenges that defined their entry into adulthood. A lack of jobs or bad jobs in their 20s prepared them for a continued lack of jobs or more bad jobs in middle age and later in life. Today, too many in this cohort are economically vulnerable and homeless or at-risk of homelessness.

Recessions and Unemployment. In the early 1980s, America was reeling from three recessions and their aftermaths. The first, between 1973 and 1975 lasted for 16 months. Not long after, in 1980 and 1981–82 there were additional recessions.

‘FIFTY-TWO PERCENT OF BOTH BLACK AND LATINX RENTERS SPEND TOO MUCH OF THEIR INCOME ON RENT.'

During recessions it is typically harder for everyone to find work. But young people tend to have higher unemployment rates than older workers. In 1982, the year “The Message” was released, unemployment reached a peak—18% of people ages 16 to 24 were out of work. For young Black workers, circumstances were far worse—36% were unemployed.

Not only were these recessionary times, but the cohort of late-born Baby Boomers faced an additional daunting challenge. Right before they came of age, Baby Boomers born in the early part of that era (an unusually large group of young adults) flooded the job market. They represented significant competition for entry-level jobs and positions. Thus, late-born Baby Boomers had a particularly rough start to their work lives.

Bad Policy. Unfortunately, in the 1980s policy not only did not help young adults, it hurt them.

1988 article pointed to an issue that would grow more familiar in the decades to come—huge numbers of workers with limited education and skills were mismatched for the jobs available in the aftermath of the recession.

Meanwhile, the federal government cut job training programs from $11 billion per year to $2 billion per year. Cuts also were made to youth programs and housing assistance. As the nation recovered from the 1970s and 1980s recessions, some people were simply left behind. Those with limited education and skills continued to have higher rates of unemployment. Some had periods when they just gave up on the job market altogether.

Making matters even worse, mass incarceration became the go-to-solution for young people with limited job opportunities. According to the Bureau of Justice statistics, between 1975 and 1985, the number of sentenced prisoners in state and federal jails/prisons essentially doubled. Criminal records are a barrier to employment and good jobs. Black workers are disproportionately disadvantaged by such barriers.

An Affordable Housing Crisis

The issue of decaying and dilapidated public housing was front and center in the 1980s. It was featured in “The Message,” but Congress also got involved. By 1989, the latter created the National Commission on Severely Distressed Public Housing. Ultimately, a lot of housing was torn down but was never replaced, resulting in a loss of more than 100,000 affordable housing units. These missing units represent a small slice of the current national shortage of 6.8 million rental homes that are affordable and available to extremely low-income renters. Government contributed to a problem that then enlarged due to its inaction.

As the late-born Baby Boomers progressed into middle age and then headed into retirement, housing costs also skyrocketed. Today, the National Low-Income Housing Coalition calculates the national housing wage (amount a renter must earn to comfortably afford housing) for a one-bedroom apartment to be $20.40/hour, with many urban areas requiring incomes much higher than that. Meanwhile, the national minimum wage is only $7.25/hour.

The lack of affordable housing and high housing costs more greatly impact people of color. Fifty-four percent of Black renters and 52% of Latinx ones spend too much of their income on rent compared to 42% of White and Asian households.

Limited affordable units plus careers defined by limited incomes to pay the rent/mortgage has left too many older adults homeless or at risk of homelessness.

Racism Always a Factor

Homelessness is among a long list of factors that evidence America’s deeply racial caste system. In interviewing older Black homeless adults in Oakland, researchers noted the prevalence of experiences with both overt and structural racism that contributed to their homelessness. Participants described economically stifling encounters with the criminal justice system, employment discrimination, wealth disparities and the premature deaths of parents and other family members, which limited their social support networks.

Concluding Thoughts

The generation of young people who entered the workforce in the late 1970s and early 1980s faced some difficult challenges. Recessions, competition for jobs among Baby Boomers, unemployment and the birth of mass incarceration are significant factors that made a generation (and especially many of its Black members) feel like they were close to the edge. Some never fully recovered.

Compounding their burdens were failed policies and an affordable housing crisis. These challenges are tied to increasing numbers of people falling over the edge into older adult homelessness.

Society failed many in this generation when they were young. We shouldn’t continue to fail them when they’re old.


Joy Moses directs the Homelessness Research Institute at the National Alliance to End Homelessness in Washington, DC.

Photo credit: Celia Ong

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.


CAPTCHA Image

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.