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John McMillin: Homeless issues alive, well and getting older

John McMillin • Updated Jun 6, 2017 at 6:30 PM

Editor’s note: This column is an updated version of a previously published column. 

In 2014, there were 306,000 people over 50 living on the streets according to the most recent data available; this is a 20-percent increase in seven years, according to the Department of Housing and Urban Development. In fact, this over-50 population is about 31 percent of our nation’s homeless population.

I bring this somber information up because for the past several weeks, we have noticed a spike in demand from people who have landed here, in Wilson County, as homeless. Of course, not all of them have been over 50, but quite a few are. For the older homeless group, many have been living on the streets for a full generation. The experts will tell you that this group represents the offspring of the recessions of the 1970s and early 1980s, federal housing cuts and various other issues.  Many of these people don’t want to live anywhere else and they have a complicated history, including tortured lives of mental health issues, drug and alcohol rehabilitation failures and prison stays. 

For us at United Way of Wilson County and the Upper Cumberland, the homeless people we encounter are just like much of the country’s homeless population in that their biggest similarity is how un-similar they are as to why they are homeless in the first place. According to the Department of Housing and Urban Renewal, the national homeless population declined by 2 percent between 2014 and 2015. Some states have even declared their homeless issues are over and they have won the battle.

Still, ask any driver travelling our local roads or any teacher in our county and city schools and they will tell you homeless issues are alive and well. Complaints run the gamut including disorderly conduct, petty crimes and even public urination.  All these issues and more pose serious dilemmas for our law enforcement and local business owners who worry about this along with aggressive panhandling.

Some experts pitch in that many homeless veterans receive housing vouchers. Also, there are subsidized low-income housing projects that give preference to our older homeless, but few older homeless people have worked long enough to qualify for Social Security, not to mention putting aside money for a 401(k) or employee retirement plan.

The predicament leaves this older generation to turn to Supplemental Security Income, or S.S.I.; this program was set up to help older people and the disabled, and generally pays a little less than $740 a month. However, S.S.I. is for people 65 and over, and Social Security doesn’t begin until age 62. This aid begins a little late since the average life span for a homeless person is 64 years.

I say all this, and yet I don’t have an answer to the problem. We do our best with the help of many donors and partner programs and even some non-partner programs, to not just patch but repair lives where we can. Most of the people we work with are hard-working individuals who simply had a run of bad luck. I’m happy we’re here to play a part in repairing lives. I only wish we could do more because I’m over 50, and I’ve known some bad luck, too.

John McMillin is president of United Way of Wilson County and the Upper Cumberland. Email him at john@givetouwwc.com.

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