At-risk populations: Those most vulnerable to homelessness
By Lori Adler, reporter
Homelessness can affect almost anyone at any time. The loss of a job, the onset of a serious medical condition or the death of a sole provider all can catapult a family into financial distress and possible homelessness. Some populations of society are more vulnerable, however. In particular, the elderly, disabled and veteran populations can often be more at risk of homelessness because of the unique situations that can affect these groups. Numbers of individuals in these groups are higher in Oneida County than in other parts of the country. The national average of people over the age of 65 is 15% nationwide, while the elderly make up 26% of the population in Oneida County. Disabled adults and veteran populations are somewhat higher in Oneida County than the national average as well. Though the numbers are high, funding is low because it is based more upon the overall population rather than any specific groups. This creates a challenging situation for these at-risk populations.
The elder population is at risk mainly due to medical conditions and accessibility issues associated with growing older. The inability to maintain a home is one of many reasons an elderly person may need to leave their home. Snow shoveling and lawncare are often situations an elder individual can no longer handle. In addition, older people may find themselves in need of a ramp to access their home, wider doors to accommodate wheelchairs or updated bathrooms with handicapped access. The cost of these updates as well as maintenance concerns puts a strain on the elderly.
Oneida County Aging and Disability Resource Center (ADRC) does whatever it can to help seniors stay in their homes by providing budgeting ideas, identifying safety concerns and trying to resolve minor issues before they become big problems. Home maintenance and repair and general accessibility remodeling are areas the elder population in Oneida County really needs help however. Finding the necessary trades people to perform the work is the biggest hurdle, Joel Gottsacker, assistant director of the ADRC, said.
“We have money; we can pay people, but we don’t have people,” Gottsacker explained.
Unfortunately, if the issues with their homes are not addressed, this often forces elder individuals to search for a new place to live. In Oneida County, it can be difficult to find housing that is both accessible and affordable. Jennifer Sackett, Oneida County ADRC specialist, explained that while there are a number of low-income housing options for seniors in Rhinelander, there is generally a waiting list. In addition, the housing is aimed at very low-income levels so those with slightly higher incomes do not qualify. A couple with an income (social security and pension, for example) of around $26,000 per year will not qualify for low-income housing. These people are the ones who get missed. Their income does not qualify them for assistance in many cases, and yet they cannot afford average area rent of accessible housing of $800-$1,000 per month.
“We need someone to come in with affordable housing that isn’t low income but isn’t $900-$1,000 a month either,” Sackett said.
Medical issues are another major concern with the older population. The high costs of medications, catastrophic illness and deductibles and items not covered by Medicare can quickly use up any savings.
The specialists at the ADRC office are there to help. Though they have very little of their own funding, they provide a resource to area seniors by trying to help them with almost any situation. They assist with help seniors apply for assistance, explain benefits, identify housing options, perform long-term care assessments, conduct wellness programs and just generally provide a caring, compassionate atmosphere for the elderly to come.
As with everything related to low-income people in Oneida County, and most likely nationwide, there are plenty of useful and effective programs available. Unfortunately, there is simply not enough money to fund these programs and ensure everyone who needs help can get it.
“There is always a need,” Sackett adds.
The Department on Aging, which is housed in the same building as the ADRC, provides a number of programs including home delivered meals and transportation assistance. The building also houses a senior center which includes a dining site and lots of ongoing activities.
Many disabled adults also face housing concerns, putting them at risk for homelessness. Though there are a few housing options for mentally and physically disabled adults in Oneida County, there is a lack of affordable and accessible options. Those considered low income find housing a challenge, Traci Caswell, Oneida County ADRC specialist, said.
“For subsidized housing, you have to be 62 and older for most of these buildings. Somebody who’s under 62 and needs accessible housing and also subsidized, their options are extremely limited,” Caswell adds.
Gottsacker also noted that another issue with this group is those people who suddenly find themselves disabled and no longer able to work. The process for applying for disability benefits is both challenging and frustrating.
“For many people who become physically disabled, especially in that late 50s to early 60s, to get on disability itself is difficult, so that’s a huge issue for many people because they can’t show necessarily that they are unable to work or that they couldn’t take another position,” he said. “So proving that you are unable to work is a big issue, but if they say you could work, finding the job is then not necessarily going to be easy.”
In order to prevent fraud, disability benefit applications require a person to show they have not worked for the previous 12 months or anticipate not being able to work for the next 12 months. In either situation, it also requires a six-month waiting period. This puts many disabled adults at risk for homelessness while simply waiting for benefits to begin.
There are 3,600 veterans in Oneida County, and many face the same challenges as the disabled and elder populations because there is crossover for this group. They can certainly be older adults and quite often have disabilities.
“The military breaks you,” Jason Daily, Oneida County assistant veteran’s services officer, remarked. “How much depends upon how long you were in.”
Many veterans face physical disabilities related to their service as well as traumatic brain injuries, which can cause both mental and physical disabilities. In addition, many veterans deal with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) which can manifest both physically and emotionally. Being unable to work for these reasons causes undue hardship and financial strain on veterans and their families.
Fortunately, veterans in Oneida County are luckier than those in many other parts of the country. Daily said the community is very patriotic and that area employers appear to be accommodating, understanding and lenient, adding, “The community seems to pull together to really help them.”
Though the community supports them, area veterans still face challenges when attempting to get assistance. Though there are several government programs available, funding is limited. Daily refers to what he calls “The 29th Parallel,” feeling that those agencies in Wisconsin north of Hwy 29 are “forgotten by the rest of the state.”
While the number of homeless veterans in Oneida County is relatively low, it does still happen. Many are hidden in that they are just not seen because they will camp during the summer and then stay with family and friends “couch surfing” during the colder months. Daily estimates he sees about a dozen or so Oneida County veterans each year who are homeless.
Though the numbers are low, it is still unacceptable, Daily explained, “One homeless vet is one too many.”
Those in any of these groups needing help should feel free to contact anyone listed below for assistance.
Aging & Disability Resource Center: www.adrc.co.oneida.wi.us or 715-369-6170
Oneida County Veterans Services: www.co.oneida.wi.us/departments/vs/ or 715-369-6127