Homeless aging before their time

Debby Francis, 54, sits on her walker in the new apartment she moved into on Friday. Beset by health problems and homelessness, she's thrilled to now have a place to stay. "They're gonna have to drag me out of this place," she said. "I don't ever want to leave this apartment."

Debby Francis, 54, sits on her walker in the new apartment she moved into on Friday. Beset by health problems and homelessness, she’s thrilled to now have a place to stay. “They’re gonna have to drag me out of this place,” she said. “I don’t ever want to leave this apartment.”

Debby Francis says there’s only one way to describe her life: “a hot mess.”

Homeless for nearly two years, Francis never dreamed that her body would be battered from bouncing from family and friends to a storage unit and then to a crowded shelter. It didn’t help that she was dealing with the fallout of cancer and several untreated medical conditions at the same time.

“I’m only 54 and shouldn’t be using a walker, having trouble getting up and down the stairs or needing to limit my activity like an 80-year-old,” she said.

Francis’ concerns that she’s aging before her time are not unfounded, according to new research out of the University of California-San Francisco.

“People who are homeless live such intensely difficult lives,” said Dr. Margot Kushel, a professor of medicine at UCSF and senior author of a study that followed 350 homeless people in Oakland, California.

Although the median age of people in the study was 58, they had more trouble bathing, dressing and eating than many 70-, 80- and 90-year-olds, Kushel said. They also had a harder time using transportation, taking medication, managing money, applying for benefits and arranging job interviews.

Many had chronic problems such as diabetes, high blood pressure and heart and lung diseases, she said. They also had higher rates of cognitive and visual impairments, and were more likely to fall and be depressed.

Problems with drugs and alcohol made things worse for some, Kushel said.

As the country’s population ages, the homeless are getting older, too. In the early 1990s, only 11 percent of the adult homeless population was age 50 or older. That increased to 37 percent by 2003, and today half of America’s homeless are older than 50.

Last year, 31 percent of the males using Columbus shelters and 27 percent of females were 45 to 55 years old; another 11 percent of men and 7 percent of women were 56 to 61; and 5 percent of males and 3 percent of females were 62 or older, said Michelle Heritage, executive director of the Columbus Shelter Board.

“I think people would be shocked to see that we have people in our shelters in their 40s and 50s who are in medically fragile condition,” she said.

Surprisingly, nearly half of the participants in the California study had never been homeless until they were 50 or older, Kushel said. Many had worked in low-skill, low-wage jobs, living paycheck to paycheck.

Francis, a West Side native, didn’t become homeless until the summer of 2014. She was 52.

She had been living in Hawaii with her daughter, a medic in the Navy, caring for her granddaughter, when she became overwhelmed with bills and transportation costs to and from doctors. Like many people who are homeless, Francis already had health issues. Breast cancer was diagnosed in November 2012, and she was still battling the disease, which almost took her life, when she returned to Columbus.

With nowhere to go, she spent the next 1-1/2 years bouncing from home to home: a friend, sister, aunt and daughter.

After overstaying her welcome, she spent three nights in a storage unit early this year. After just three days, she went to the Van Buren family shelter on the West Side because she couldn’t stand the cold.

All the stress and moving around didn’t help her body, which already was ravaged by chemotherapy and radiation. In addition to cancer, Francis also has chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, bad knees that cause her to fall a lot, and several untreated medical issues requiring surgery, including a bladder problem that has caused her to be incontinent.

“I’m literally falling apart; it has me so depressed,” she said.

Even younger people aren’t immune, said Steve Skovensky, who coordinators the Maryhaven Collaborative Outreach Team, which links homeless people living in camps and cars and under bridges with housing, medical treatment and other resources.

“I worked with a client recently who was only 25 but was already suffering from partial loss of vision and hearing, had some cognitive impairment and was pregnant,” he said. She also had asthma and chronic bronchitis.

Poor nutrition, interrupted sleep and the hard living conditions of being homeless all make vulnerable people even more at risk, said Bonnie Crawford, a social worker who supervises the Health Care for Homeless Veterans Program at the Columbus VA Ambulatory Care Center.

When someone is in crisis and in need of their next meal and place to lay their head, medical care is not a high priority, said Sue Darby, vice president of housing and healthy living for the YMCA of Central Ohio.

“The biggest problem is a lack of consistent, quality medical treatment,” she said.

As part of a six-month test program, the Community Shelter Board and PrimaryOne Health will have six medically staffed beds at the Van Buren shelter starting April 15 for people just out of the hospital. The goal is to cut down on hospital readmissions and get people ongoing health care, Heritage said.

A week ago, Francis moved into the first apartment she’s had in years, on the East Side, and she’s hopeful her health will start to turn around.

“Life is what you make it, and I’m going to make it the best that it can be because I’m way too young to be on the fast track to a nursing home,” she said.
Encarnacion Pyle, The Columbus Dispatch, Monday April 4, 2016 5:55 AM
Homeless people show signs of aging, medical problems sooner