Chronicle: A large and teeming retirement community called Skid Row

Earlie King Jr. says he was in his late twenties when he took up residence in a downtown alley.

He had no intention of aging there, but that’s what happened.

When King finally moved in, about three weeks ago, he was 65. Leaving the driveway in Los Angeles, where he and his friends carved out an existence unloading shipments to toy-district merchants, felt like leaving home.

“This place just becomes a part of you,” King told me after we were introduced by LA County Housing for Health coordinator Sieglinde Von Deffner, who ushered him into a one-bedroom apartment building. individual nearby.

It’s a temporary arrangement, and King hopes he can move into a new building nearby once construction is complete. But the demand far outweighs the supply, and King has been homeless for so long that the transition to indoor living is disorienting.

“I had trouble sleeping last night,” he told me. The mattress felt strange after spending half its life on a wooden pallet covered in cardboard.

King’s gray stubble and uncertain future put him in good company in a skid line. Based on information provided by government and nonprofit officials, about 2,000 older people — a disproportionate number of them black people — live in tents, shacks, shelters and single rooms. And in limbo.

Wendell Blassingame sits at the entrance to San Julian Park in downtown Los Angeles.

(Wally Skalij/Los Angeles Times)

“Skid Row is the largest retreat center in the country,” said Wendell Blassingame, 74, who distributes masks, psalms and information about housing and social services from his volunteer position in the small street park. 5th and San Julian.

There are larger retreat centers of course, but Blassingame, once homeless and now living in a single room, meant it as a lament rather than literally. Aging is already a challenge in a safe and pleasant environment. In the side aisle, the ground is harsh, a drug market flourishes amid the misery, and physical and mental distress are in the spotlight. And women have it worst, Blassingame said, because of how they are used and abused.

Seniors are one of the fastest growing segments of the homeless population in California, even though life expectancies are considerably lower for people whose health deteriorates rapidly on the streets. And the skid row — where about 17% of the homeless population is 55 and older, according to the latest count — is a good place to see where we’re headed if the state doesn’t prevail in its strategy to 10 years to reverse the trend. poverty rates, health care inequities, and the housing affordability crisis already hitting older residents.

I asked Reverend Andy Bales, who runs the Union Rescue Mission on San Pedro Street, if he knew how many elderly people he housed.

Two hundred and eighteen and more are on the way, he said. “We foresee a tsunami of elderly people and families with children.”

I wanted to meet some of the old people and Bales opened the door for me.

Margo Fitzsimmons, 66, sits at a table wearing a mask.

Margo Fitzsimmons, 66, has been a resident of the Union Rescue Mission for three years.

(Steve Lopez/Los Angeles Times)

“It’s a godsend,” said Margo Fitzsimmons, 66, an unemployed security guard who lived with a cousin in Inglewood. When she died, she became homeless.

She said she had a relative who might be inclined to let her “curl up in his living room, but his wife won’t have it”. His car was too expensive to keep, Fitzsimmons said, and finding work without one is a big problem.

The same goes for age discrimination. In an interview, she says, she was told, “We really don’t work with people in your age range. She moved to the mission, where she shares a small room with another woman, three years ago.

“I’m always trying to move on,” said Fitzsimmons, who doesn’t feel safe on the dump streets. “I walk in faith that something will eventually happen… I’m going to be okay because I’m healthy, I don’t smoke, I don’t do drugs.”

Michael Kelly, a 76-year-old university graduate and Canadian citizen, has lived at the mission for 10 years and earns a stipend for driving patients to the mission’s dental clinic. Kelly told me that he started drinking heavily when he was young and also became addicted to painkillers. His marriage ended, he was treated for depression and held various jobs over the years, but “my drinking ruined everything”. Several attempts at rehabilitation failed until he was finally sober on the mission.

Michael Kelly, 76, is seated at a table.

Michael Kelly, 76, has lived at the Union Rescue Mission for 10 years.

(Steve Lopez/Los Angeles Times)

“I came here because I had nothing,” said Kelly, who saves up for occasional trips to the theater or the opera.

He told me that he doesn’t see how he can ever afford to live alone. But he didn’t stop thinking about the possibility.

“I have a vision of a house in the country with a stream, so I could do some fishing,” he says. “That would be my dream.”

Michelle Steverson, 70, arrived at the mission two weeks ago. She did general office work and lived with a half-sister, but was asked to leave after losing her job – she blames it on age discrimination – and could no longer help with the rent . She has no idea what’s next.

“I just try to be happy and look for any opportunity,” Steverson said.

What is scary is how many people are about to fall into the same situation. After talking to Steverson, I heard about a 102-year-old World War II veteran who lives in a one-bedroom apartment in Hollywood. He said most of his income goes to home care and he just got hit with a $524 gas bill. He put his babysitter on the phone and she said she was struggling too, as the pay is relatively low for home helpers.

“Everywhere you turn, gas bills are rising and people on fixed incomes may end up having to choose between the gas bill and housing,” said Professor Donna Benton, a USC gerontologist who contributed to the study. development of California’s blueprint for aging.

Benton is optimistic about strategies to address and prevent homelessness, but she does not minimize the enormity of the challenges. She says more weight needs to be lifted to raise wages, fight age discrimination and extend careers. And some form of long-term insurance is needed so that isolation, suffering and poverty are not so much a part of aging.

Dr. Heidi Behforouz, Housing for Health’s chief medical officer, doesn’t hold back when discussing what she sees as a collective shrug of the struggles of a population treated as disposable.

“One of the marks of a civil society is that it takes care of its citizens with deference and better as they age, and we do that horribly in this country,” Behforouz said. “We don’t have enough of a safety net system to catch aging people who become socially and fiscally disenfranchised.”

She said she is trying to roll out three initiatives this year. The first would be to strengthen the outreach teams that provide medical care and social services to people in shelters and on the streets; the second, to provide long-term management to those who need it; and the third, to provide better palliative and palliative care services to elderly people at the end of life.

Getting someone like Earlie King into a room, Behforouz said, doesn’t mean the job is done, because the goal is to help people thrive, not just survive.

King was a little hesitant to take me down the alley where he lived, but he thinks he needs to face his fears and convince himself that life is behind him. He showed me the place against a red brick wall where he slept all those nights, except when he was arrested for drunkenness and injustice and served time in prison.

It all started, he said, when his wife died of heart disease in her early thirties.

“That’s what triggered me,” said King, who lost his job as a janitor, left his children with relatives and became yet another anonymous face, disappearing into the cracks of a row of skids. .

A bad urinary tract infection landed him in hospital late last year. When he recovered, he met social worker Von Deffner and embarked on this new path, which gives him hope, but which also frightens him.

King said he thought about the lost years and the children who grew up without him. He’d love to get back into the picture, he told me, if that’s even a possibility. But he must first work on himself.

“I have to do what I have to do,” he said.

Los Angeles Times

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