No place like home
By James Jackson
Published July 9, 2014
The first of a three-part Waterloo Chronicle series examining the lack of affordable housing for seniors in Waterloo Region.
More of Waterloo Region’s most vulnerable seniors could end up on the streets as the municipality prepares for the arrival of thousands of new residents over the coming decades.
Gael Gilbert, executive director of Supportive Housing of Waterloo, worries the numbers of homeless or under-housed seniors could climb sharply over the next 20 years unless something is done soon to provide more housing options for at-risk seniors.
“I’m not sure at this point that it’s seen as much of an issue (and) I think it’s going to be,” she said. “It really concerns me.”
SHOW is a non-profit organization aimed at designing, building and operating permanent affordable and supportive housing in Waterloo for those experiencing persistent homelessness or who may be hard-to-house due to a past history of drug or alcohol abuse.
Gilbert is also the co-chair of the housing committee on Waterloo Mayor Brenda Halloran’s task force for an age-friendly city. That group is working towards establishing a housing strategy for hard-to-place seniors who can’t afford retirement homes or who may be rejected by nursing homes because they either have a drug or alcohol addiction, or are fighting one with methadone or another treatment program.
Waterloo Region lacks sufficient housing for this at-risk population of seniors, Gilbert said. Only 17 per cent (roughly 1,600) of all community housing units are dedicated to seniors.
“That just doesn’t exist here. There’s a whole population of individuals that we could place in that housing or support system that are using the Out of the Cold programs, living in very marginalized boarding homes or rooming houses, and we really need a much better level of service.”
By 2031, Waterloo Region’s population is expected to swell to about 742,000 — a 46 per cent increase over the 507,096 that called the region home in 2011. But the number of seniors is expected to more than double over that same time frame, from 62,590 to 129,725.
It’s an emerging trend across the country as the Baby Boomers get set to retire. According to Statistics Canada, seniors are the fastest-growing age group in Canada. An estimated five million Canadians were 65 or older in 2011, a number expected to more than double to 10.4 million by 2036.
This growth in seniors, combined with the low birth rate, means that for the first time in Waterloo Region’s history there will be more residents over the age of 65 than under the age of 14 by 2031.
Canada has done well to reduce poverty levels among seniors in recent decades. The percentage of seniors living below the low-income cutoff fell from 36.9 per cent in 1976 to 3.9 per cent in 1995.
But those numbers have been quietly creeping up into the double digits in the last decade. The percentage of seniors living below the low-income cutoff hit 10.2 per cent in 2005 and rose to 12.3 per cent in 2010, according to Statistics Canada.
Last year, the low-income cutoff for one person was just over $23,000, or about $29,000 for two people, according to Statistics Canada.
Gilbert said women in particular are at risk, and statistics support that claim. Between 2006 and 2010, about 60 per cent of the estimated 160,000 seniors living in poverty in this country were women, particularly those over the age of 75.
This is largely due to pension allowances that have traditionally been linked to employment history, reports the Conference Board of Canada, a not-for-profit think tank.
Gilbert said the number of seniors living in poverty will likely worsen in the coming decades since two-thirds of working Canadians don’t have a company pension plan and only one-third contribute to Registered Retirement Savings Plans.
Housing costs are also increasing more for seniors than any other segment of the population. According to the Waterloo Region Housing Action Plan, released earlier this year, between 1996 and 2006 housing costs rose from $467 per month to $663 for seniors, a 42 per cent increase.
An estimated 26 per cent of seniors in the region also rent their homes, and a quarter of seniors pay 30 per cent or more of their monthly income towards housing, the highest of all population groups, according to the housing action plan. That report also notes there is a limited range of housing options for low-income seniors.
While the church-based Out of the Cold program, which provides a hot meal and a place to sleep for the homeless from November to April each year, doesn’t officially track the ages of its visitors, the number of people using the service has increased steadily in the past decade.
The number of overnight guests at Out of the Cold rose about seven per cent to nearly 12,000 people last winter. The program also served more than 26,000 meals.
At SHOW, two of the 30 residents are over the age of 65, and another eight are not officially seniors but are so prematurely aged due to their lives on the street some suffer age-related illnesses or other problems, such as dementia, Gilbert said.
“We’ve had three tenants die here in the last two years and the average age was 50,” Gilbert said. “Bodies aged way beyond their years.
“I find it appalling that this is what our seniors have to look forward to.”
The region is responsible for affordable housing but Gilbert said they’ve done as much as they can do. There needs to be more support from the provincial and federal levels of government, she said.
My Owen Place, a five-storey, 49-unit apartment building aimed at seniors 60 or older in need of affordable housing, has helped, but those kinds of projects are few and far between, Gilbert said. She knows of no new affordable housing projects for seniors coming at the regional level, and that must change before the problem worsens.
“I think we’re being incredibly shortsighted and we need to be building for the future, because the future has a habit of coming fairly quickly,” she said.
Too often we try to play catch-up with these kinds of problems, she added, “and we don’t do it all that well.”