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Helping older Utahns who are homeless will take a cultural shift, expert says

James DeLuna is in his early 50s and has been experiencing homelessness for about a decade.
Emily Means
James DeLuna is in his early 50s and has been experiencing homelessness for about a decade.

James DeLuna, 52, has been homeless on and off in the Salt Lake area for the past decade.

On a sunny day at Murray Park, a few miles from where he had been rooming at a friend’s house, DeLuna compared aging while homeless to a changing golf swing.

“What's the difference of golfing at 42 versus 52, where your back goes out, your leg goes out, your arm goes out, your shoulder goes out,” he said. “You definitely lose some strokes. It's the same thing with homelessness.”

Nationally, people experiencing homelessness seem to be getting older. That’s also the case in Utah, one of the youngest states in the country.

Data from the Utah Homeless Management Information System show the number of people 50 and older accessing homeless services increased from 19% in 2017 to 25% in 2021.

When looking at the data, there are two groups of individuals to watch for, according to Sarah Canham, an expert in aging and housing insecurity at the University of Utah. She said there’s been an increase in those who became homeless later in life, likely people who were renting and then “something severe has happened.”

“Maybe they've had a health situation that they can't afford, so they have to choose their health over their housing,” Canham said. “They've lost a spouse or a partner who is helping with the costs of living. These sort of age-related characteristics are leading to homelessness in later life.”

Additionally, those who are chronically homeless — defined as at least a year while experiencing a disabling condition — are getting older, too.

The conditions of homelessness, she said, lead to accelerated aging, both physically and mentally, and it becomes difficult to bounce back from injuries and illness.

That resonates with DeLuna, who has had his hips replaced.

“Once you get an injury if you've been on the streets … whatever it may be, when you're homeless, that's multiplied by 10,” he said. “It makes it a lot worse because then you have that ailment that you're trying to deal with along with being homeless.”

Canham said a lot needs to be done to address the health, social and housing needs of this demographic. But she also wants to see a cultural shift in society.

“This could happen to them, or this could happen to their parents, or this could happen to their grandparents, so they should care,” she said. “Because we live in a society currently that is highly ageist, that's highly discriminatory against people experiencing homelessness, and so people don't care enough.”

Emily Means is a government and politics reporter at KUER.
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