The number of older Utahns affected by homelessness is increasing

For more than 20 years, Petie Hale held a steady job with the local stagehands’ union, organizing concerts and conventions for artists and exhibits passing through Salt Lake City.

It was reliable money, enough to pay the monthly rent to settle on a couch in a downtown house. Being in the spotlight for Guns N’ Roses was just an added benefit.

But in March 2020, as the global spread of the COVID-19 pandemic turned life upside down in Utah and across the United States, Hale’s world – like so many others – collapsed.

“If you have a job and you survive, you don’t go without it, and then all of a sudden, boom,” she said, “you have nothing and you can’t go to work, it’s bad.”

Hale, now 65, became part of a growing number of older Utahns affected by homelessness. In 2021, state data showed that 1,429 Beehive State residents age 60 and older were considered “literally homeless” — a 34% increase from 2017.

Experts say the rising cost of living has pushed many older Utah residents onto the streets. For Hale, a global health emergency has eroded that sense of stability.

Hale has experienced homelessness before, but nothing like it. For six months she had no income at all, nada, zilch, not even food stamps. She begged to get through.

“Basically, the pandemic has cost me everything,” she said. “Everyting everything.”

The eviction protection at the time wasn’t much help. Nights when she was reliably sheltered gave way to staying in motel rooms, giving way to sleeping in a Lincoln Navigator with her grown son and his girlfriend, giving way to sleeping in tents near the railroad tracks west of it Downtown.

And her story, alas, is hardly unique.

What went wrong with so many Utahns?

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Billy Ray Bratcher takes down his tent while the Salt Lake City Police Department cleans up camps on Rio Grade Street in Salt Lake City on Monday, December 26, 2022.

The number of seniors affected by homelessness is steadily increasing and has been increasing every year since at least 2017. (Data for 2022 was not immediately available.)

Danny Harris, advocacy director at AARP Utah, said his organization saw this coming, with modeling predicting a significant increase in evictions and homelessness in 2022.

The pandemic programs that have kept many on their feet are ending, he said, and now those years of unpaid bills are due.

“Eventually, the bills had to be paid,” he said, “and some of those people are sadly homeless now, I think.”

Rent prices in Utah, meanwhile, have skyrocketed, outpacing the income growth of older residents.

According to a study by the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute, rents along the Wasatch Front rose at the same rate between 2020 and 2022 as they did in the decade prior to 2020.

For some homeowners whose homes are long since paid off, Harris says rising property taxes have felt like a return to unrelenting mortgages.

To make those rent and tax payments, many older Utahns rely on welfare payments. Social Security checks, Harris said, account for at least 90% of the income of nearly a third of Beehive State’s retirees.

That boils down to a fundamental math problem, according to Bill Tibbitts, associate general manager of the Crossroads Urban Center. Because the average rent is higher than the average Social Security check, he says the seniors lack stable housing.

When the cost of living soars, Tibbitts said, among the people most likely to fall through the cracks are a growing number of Utahns age 65 and older.

“When people think of homelessness, they don’t think of someone’s grandma or grandpa who used to be able to pay the rent,” Tibbitts said, “but now that rents are going up, they can’t.”

Making a dent in elderly homelessness, Tibbitts said, depends on the availability of more housing options.

The need for more housing

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Petie Hale cuts an apple Tuesday, January 3, 2023 at Green Phoenix Farm in Wasatch Community Gardens to feed the rabbit she cares for.

Hale was living in a tent when a chance encounter with former Salt Lake City Mayor Rocky Anderson that summer prompted a change in her living conditions.

Anderson, who is trying to reclaim his City Hall seat and is a strong advocate for homelessness issues, introduced Hale to officials at The Point, a low-income housing development at 2333 W. North Temple for seniors and veterans managed by Switchpoint, a nonprofit organization, organization of homeless aid is operated.

Hale moved into her new apartment last month and was paying $450 a month including utilities. It’s a prize modest enough to be covered by Social Security, which she began collecting last spring when she turned 65.

However, many others are not so lucky. Waitlists for vouchers and housing, Harris said, are long.

“It’s very difficult for a lot of people to hold on to their fingernails,” Harris said, “waiting on a waiting list that never seems to end.”

Wayne Niederhauser, the state’s homelessness coordinator, said state and local officials are trying to increase the number of units available to seniors.

Niederhauser said the state is working with the Salt Lake Valley Coalition to End Homelessness to convert a hotel into a transitional housing development to serve elderly, disabled and medically vulnerable residents.

“This is to stabilize them in housing,” he said, “and then move them to more permanent housing.”

The state also donated more than $10 million to Friends of Switchpoint last year to expand service for seniors and veterans with a new project near Hale’s home in The Point.

Last month, the Salt Lake City Council approved a request from Mayor Erin Mendenhall’s administration to spend millions on investments in both the medically vulnerable transitional settlement and the new Switchpoint addition.

Tibbitts said creating more housing options for seniors will ultimately drive more people off the streets, as many shelter beds are occupied by older Utahns, whose incomes are unlikely to increase.

Funding these affordable options, he said, should be a priority.

“People shouldn’t work their whole lives,” Tibbitts said, “get to the point where they’re too old and have disabilities and can’t work anymore and spend their golden years in an animal shelter.”

Gov. Spencer Cox’s newly proposed budget includes $150 million for housing and homeless services, plus another $100 million in one-time expenditures to create an estimated 2,000 affordable units.

Harris, the AARP advocacy director, said policy solutions must cover the whole spectrum to eliminate the risk of homelessness for older Utahns. Sure, that means more affordable housing, but it also means expanding programs — like the state’s property tax and tax deferral programs — that will help Utahans stay in their longtime homes when they want to grow older there.

“If we don’t address these issues now,” Harris said, “they’re only going to get worse in the years to come.”

Finding a place for Petie Hale is just the beginning.

Editor’s Note • This story is available only to Salt Lake Tribune subscribers. Thank you for supporting local journalism. The number of older Utahns affected by homelessness is increasing

Justin Scacco

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