The number of homeless seniors in Hillsborough County has seen a staggering rise over the course of the pandemic, according to numbers from the Tampa Hillsborough Homeless Initiative (THHI).
Last year, 495 adults aged 62 or older sought shelters, safe havens and outreach projects as they experienced homelessness in Hillsborough County.
In 2018, this number was 296—that's a 67% increase in homeless seniors over the last three years.
In total across all age groups, 4,777 people sought out homeless programs in 2021, compared to 4,233 in 2018. Adults over 62 years old make up the most significant increase by far.
Antoinette D. Hayes-Triplett, the CEO of THHI who has been working on homeless issues since 1995, said that older people have the most difficulty getting into housing. She said a number of factors have led to the explosive growth in the older homeless population.
"One thing is that they're usually on a fixed income," Hayes-Triplett told Creative Loafing Tampa Bay. "Typically social security benefits give them about $800-$1,000. And there's really no place you can rent in Hillsborough County for a one bedroom for under that price range. Then if you do end up getting a place for $800, what do you eat?"
Hayes-Triplett said that last year's figure represents people 62 and older who have accessed homeless services, not the total amount of people on the streets. Earlier this year, THHI performed a sampling method to determine how many people are currently on the streets in Hillsborough; numbers from that "Point In Time Census" will be released later this month.
She expects that the overall number of homeless people has increased this year. But the increase in older people seeking help for homelessness in 2021 is especially concerning, she said.
She told CL that there's no one solution to the problem but that THHI has an strategic plan in place that includes addressing the roots of homelessness: poverty, low wages, unemployment, lack of affordable housing, mental illness and substance abuse.
The group has held expungement clinics to remove criminal records for free, established a community-wide affordable supportive housing program that increases access to housing for people emerging from homelessness, and increased permanent housing vouchers, among other services.
Hayes-Triplett said that THHI is working on establishing several shared housing units. THHI currently has three of the houses established, with a goal of 50 units that would house a total of 150 people. Initially, the housing would focus on housing older people and other vulnerable groups. This project is in the works along with the BEACH house, which will focus on housing chronically homeless people, which often include people who are older than 60.
She said that the pandemic has affected the pace of these projects, but that they are in the works.
Recent events add context to the increasing number of homeless older people in Tampa Bay.
At a Tampa City Council meeting last week, Arlene Washington, a disabled elderly Black woman, detailed the unaffordable cost of living in the city, including where she lives at Madison Highland Senior Apartments in downtown Tampa.
"We have people there that are moving out this month because they can't afford to pay the rent anymore," Washington said. "And it's wrong, it hurts my heart to know how you treat seniors."
After Washington and several others spoke at that meeting, city council asked for staff to explore the creation of a "Tenant Advocacy Office," which would help tenants navigate leases and issues with landlords. Council also asked for staff to look at the possibility of establishing a landlord and tenant registry, which could potentially help keep track of landlords who improperly manage their properties.
Bad landlords have been a real problem in the Tampa area. Silver Oaks Apartments and Holly Court Apartments are just two properties being run like slums.
City council has several times called the spike in rents a "crisis" but the city has turned away from advocate cries for rent stabilization, instead focusing on reforms and a rent relief program that pays off landlords who increase rental prices. Mayor Jane Castor, whose election PAC was largely funded by developers, has stood firmly against rent stabilization, saying it would "kill development."
Felicia Crosby-Rucker, Hillsborough County's Director of Homeless and Community Services, told CL that everyday people are hitting the streets as rents increase, and that the county is trying to prevent that before it happens.
At a forum on homelessness last week, Crosby-Rucker pointed out that the face of homelessness has changed in recent years, and that anyone is susceptible to ending up on the streets during the current crisis.
"You would be surprised, it's just regular people who are just doing what they can to survive," she told CL. "What I've seen lately is definitely a lot of seniors, because they were in a lot of affordable units and the rents are going up. So we're having more and more conversations about diversion."
Crosby-Rucker explained that diversion involves representatives from the county advocating to landlords on behalf of tenants to see what options are available besides eviction. Sometimes they'll see if a tenant can pay part of a rent and catch up on the rest later.
"We basically see if there's something we can work out between them," Crosby-Rucker said.
Both Crosby-Rucker and Hayes-Triplett said that their organizations are actively looking for more community partners to help establish more housing that regular working people can afford. They encourage more partners with property available to come to the table.
"We're talking with community groups, faith based groups and even small landlords who might own duplexes and properties like that," Crosby-Rucker said. "And there are incentives to people that get involved. But the main thing is, by getting involved you become part of the solution."