Survival the solution for older homeless men

Story and photo by Lee Horton

The front door is open while a man sleeps in his new studio apartment. It isn’t an accident. After years of being homeless, the man finally gets a place he can call his own. He just isn’t ready to believe it, or to let go of the life he has become accustomed to.

The Sunrise Metro Apartments, located at 580 S. 500 West in Salt Lake City, provide permanent shelter for chronically homeless men.

So, he purposely leaves the entrance open. He’s not the only one who does so.

“When you go into an apartment and close the door, you’re alone,” said Joyce Crockett, a case manager at The Road Home, a nonprofit service agency in Salt Lake City that helps shelter and feed the homeless. “As much as these guys want to get out of shelter, they hadn’t been alone alone for a long time.”

Crockett said one man continued to sleep outside for almost a month after he moved into his apartment.

“It is a surprisingly difficult adjustment,” Crockett said.

The Sunrise Metro Apartments, 580 S. 500 West in Salt Lake City, are a housing-first project opened by The Road Home in 2007. It provides apartments to men who have been chronically homeless.

A person needs to spend more than 700 nights in a shelter to be considered chronically homeless. Most clients of Sunrise Metro have been living on the streets for as long as seven to 10 years. Many of them are older adults.

The number of older adults who will be homeless and will need assistance from a shelter or other programs is only going to increase, said Alesia Wilson, a licensed clinical social worker at The Road Home.

“Because of the economy, the demographic is going to change,” Wilson said. “Society has always been able to take care of the elderly, but it is getting more difficult.”

She said a lot older adults are becoming homeless because their families are not able to afford to take care of them, or to put them nursing homes. Many others are ending up on the streets because they’ve lost their 401(k) money.

Wilson said homeless people live an average of 20 years less than people who have a consistent roof over their head.

Sunrise Metro takes some of the male older adults out of shelters and gives them their own apartment. Despite the difficult adjustment, having the responsibility of their own home is significant for chronically homeless older adults.

“There are a lot of self-esteem issues with being homeless,” Crockett said. “We see people accepting who they are and not being embarrassed of who they are. They feel comfortable in their own skin for the first time in a really long time. They have a nice apartment, and it’s pretty stable. They’re not on the street, they’re not in the shelter. They don’t feel like such a loser.”

The housing is permanent, but the residents still struggle to accept their good fortune. Crockett said many of the residents worry about the program leaving their lives as easily as it entered it. They also question why they are so lucky.
“A lot of people feel they don’t deserve it,” Crockett said.

The more the residents become accustomed to having their own apartment, the more confident they feel. The newfound self-esteem helps them take more risks.
One risk they take is being more social. Crockett has seen many people who never interacted with anyone at the shelter open up.

“When we see them, when we have an activity, having a conversation with a stranger or another tenant, it is very heart-warming,” Crockett said.

The best measure of success is the number of residents Sunrise Metro has been able help to reconnect with their family.

“There are a lot of people here who haven’t had any involvement with their family for a very long time,” Crockett said.

It often isn’t easy to get older homeless men to get in contact with their family. Case managers at Sunrise Metro ask residents about their family and if they want to talk to them. At first, the residents are uncomfortable with the thought and decline the invitation. Many of them feel guilty for causing their family to fall apart.

The residents will start to think about their family more and more after being asked. Eventually, they are ready to take action.

“Some families are very excited when they call,” Crockett said. “Sometimes, they just haven’t called their family. Their families want to know where they are and what they are doing.”

Crockett said the confidence to take the risk to get in touch with their family usually starts with having a suitable place to live.

“The fact that they have a place to live is probably the biggest drive to find their families because they have a nice apartment, and they’re not on the street, not in the shelter,” she said.

Residents also gain self-confidence from obtaining employment. Sunrise Metro has case managers who help the residents write up a resume. “They have more skills than they think,” Crockett said.

The struggling economy has made finding a job a more difficult task. The businesses usually willing to hire older homeless men don’t have any openings. Even the normally reliable Deseret Industries doesn’t have openings.

“When you can’t get them a job at the D.I.,” Crockett said, “you know things are bad.”

Older homeless adults also face age discrimination. Crockett believes these men are physically capable of doing most jobs. They just need an opportunity.

The case managers are on-site five days a week. Besides assisting the men with their job search, case managers also hook them up with resources and help them get out and functioning in the community. If the men are unable to find jobs, the case managers help the men through the Social Security process.
Case managers also help the residents put together a case plan. Crockett calls Sunrise Metro a “client-driven program.” This means the residents decide on their goals. Case managers make sure the residents are meeting their goals. If they are not, the case manager will refine the plan or revamp what isn’t working.

Case managers also get to know each resident’s specific situation so they don’t head back down the path they are trying to leave.

“The [purpose] of having on-site services is to be available when you see a problem that people fall in that leads them to be homeless,” Crockett said. “You would be here to interrupt that, whatever their cycle is.”

Residents also have therapy services available with Alesia Wilson through The Road Home. But they don’t often they take advantage of it.

“It’s not really their priority,” Wilson said. “They’re more in survival/crisis mode. Staying alive is all they need.”

Both Wilson and Crockett believe living through homelessness has made the residents resilient.

“These are strong people in a lot of ways,” Crockett said. “They’ve had to be in order to survive.”

Just getting a place to live after all the years of living in the streets and in shelters is enough to call Sunrise Metro a successful endeavor, Crockett said. “I think it allows them to die with some dignity.”