Defining and Mediating the Cause of the Newly and Elderly Homeless in Toronto

Defining and Mediating the Cause of the Newly and Elderly Homeless in Toronto

While there are many studies on the cause and effect of homelessness within our cities that provide analysis and policy remedies – even for subsections of this problem, such as families and youth groups – little research has been committed to a growing trend in our culture: The newly-elderly homeless. In the past, this stratum of poverty has been extrapolated from more generalised statistics and merely speculated on the berth and condition of its members (Cohen, 1999) offering little insight in how to combat the problem or even provide a solid definition of the core issue. A recent study by MacDonald, Dergal & Cleghorn sought to identify issues revolving around the recently homeless who are elderly, identifying the causation and current policy and regiment gaps that allow these members to silently suffer more so than their counterparts (2007) and shed light on this growing cohort. Shifting demographics with an aging population coupled with economic turmoil and subsequent austerity measures have placed elderly people who live at the margin in peril of losing adequate shelter and services – breeding a new housing condition which is complex to anticipate and demands further research and planning intervention.


Determining the pathway to homelessness in the elderly is cumbersome and not unlike that of street youth in that it consists of multidimensional factors including the lack of affordable housing, employment or institutional services (Stegiopoulos & Herrmann, 2003). But the risks are different, harder to measure and often more abrupt:  the sudden loss of stable income, death of a spouse or significant other, lack of a proper caregiver and even eviction (Crane, 1999). Others that have been institutionalised for a long period due to physical or mental health may have lost their ability to maintain housing within that time (Hecht & Coyle, 2003) and are often released to shelters as a last resort. Further still, some have become homeless in their middle-age as they were living with elderly parents – due to economic or health concerns – who’ve since passed away leaving their offspring little-to-no social safety net (Crane & Warnes, 2000). While generally better educated, these factors are pressured by past economic ability – with many surviving in poor or near-poor conditions most of their lives – never having the benefits that full- and long-time employment provides, such as personal saving or pensions (Cohen, 1999). Alternatively, they may have had their pensions rescinded through bankruptcy or corporate raiding or their retirement savings dwindled by sudden economic decline (MacDonald, Dergal & Cleghorn, 2007; Gillespie, 2007).


Capturing the scope and severity of the issue through traditional services who aid the homeless – which rely on a methodology of crisis intervention in an attempt to focus on building independence and self-sufficiency (MacDonald, Dergal & Cleghorn, 2007) – is often untenable as they are programs more attractive to youth and young adults. Elderly homeless require greater access to mobility and care during the day, often unavailable in shelters as they only operate during the evening hours or are inaccessible for those with disabilities (Stegiopoulos & Herrmann, 2003). Mental health issues – including depression – requires constant and consistent care to stymie isolation and chronic and multiple physical health conditions need support and aid for medication (Cohen, 1999). The current lack of services and support are cited as the causation and continuance of both mental and physical health issues and further isolation and reliance on the street. Often, without third-party encouragement, physical ailments go undiagnosed because of the lack of a family physician, inability to recognise the severity of the issue or fear, either of being shunned by or directly suspicious of, the medical community and potential institutionalisation (Crane & Warnes, 2000). Others were barred from seeking medical help because of the lack of a health card or insurance and from the reluctance of health providers to register homeless people because of their multiple inflictions and transient nature (Hwang, 2000). The newly-elderly homeless tend to stay with services familiar and close to them, such as family doctors or neighbourhood clinics where they make shelter, but are seemingly oblivious to community outreach programs and drop-in centres (MacDonald, Dergal & Cleghorn, 2007) where research can be completed more comprehensively. Agencies, such as The Daily Bread Food bank have conducted their own surveys that show 40% of older recipients of their service often had difficulty paying for their prescription medications every month with as many as 27% declining outright to purchase them simply because of affordability (2001). The MacDonald, Dergal & Cleghorn study in Toronto also showed that 50% of the recently elderly homeless are also recent immigrants to Canada and have suffered from family breakdowns and have little communication between ex-spouses or the community and suffer from a language or cultural disadvantage. The elderly are also subject to more victimization within these shelters from other residents due to their frail condition, including physical assault, thief and rape (Cohen, 1999) but rarely are these events reported out of neglect, indifference or shame.


Those who are moved immediately out of standard programs to dedicated, specialised shelters where they can obtain services and a more appropriate social network suffer less from chronic health issues and are more likely to survive longer and find permanent homes (MacDonald, Dergal & Cleghorn , 2007). Similar studies in the United States and Britain confirms the stark difference in needs and services between the elderly homeless and existing policy structures. While programs are available to provide economic support in both nations – including old age security and medical care – often these are only enough to mitigate the current problem and not enough to permit a further decline in physical or mental health (Hecht & Coyle, 2003). As well, the qualification cut-off rate to obtain these services often disallow the ability to earn other income, however little or temporary, rendering those who claim this aid constantly reliant and remain at the upper-edge of poverty (Crane & Warnes, 2000) where they become an invisible statistic. Defining the issues that cause elderly homelessness and capturing the potential size of this problem will require resources from multiple agencies and personal interviews to create effective and preventative policy and support services that will not only take undue strain off of existing social assistance – but better and lengthen the lives of those who spent theirs building the community we have today.




Cohen, C. I. (1999) Aging and homelessness. The Gerontologist, 39(1). 5-14.

Crane, M. (1999) Understanding Older Homeless People. Housing Studies, 15(2). 325-327.

Crane, M & Warnes, A. M. (2000) Lessons from Lancefield Street: Tackling the needs of older homeless people. National Homeless Alliance. London.

Daily Bread Food Bank (2001) Aging with Dignity? How governments create insecurity for low-income seniors. Toronto.

Gillespie, K. (2007, Sept. 27) Who can rescue seniors from property tax trap? The Toronto Star. Retrieved from:

Hecht, L. & Coyle, B. (2001). Elderly Homeless: A Comparison of Older and Younger Adult Emergency Shelter Seekers in Bakersfield, California. American Behavioral Scientist, 45(1). 66-79.

Hwang, S. (2000) Homelessness and Health. Canadian Medical Journal, 164(2). 229-233.

MacDonald, L., Dergal, J. & Cleghorn, L. (2007) Living on the Margins. Jornal of Gerontological Social Work, 49(1-2). 19-46.

Rokach, A. (2003) The Lonely and Homeless: Causes and Consequences. The Institute for the Study and Treatment of Psychosocial Stress, Toronto.

Stergiopoulos, V. & Herrmann, N. (2003, July) Old and Homeless: A Review and Survey of Older Adults Who Use Shelters in an Urban Setting. The Canadian Journal of Psychiatry, 48. Canadian Psychiatric Association. 374-380.



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