Elder homelessness is a pervasive problem in Massachusetts. Many elders become homeless as a result of being evicted from their apartments. Too often, elders face eviction from public housing as the result of an issue that could have been addressed or prevented with appropriate services. This is especially true for older adults who have mental illness or who suffer from cognitive decline. In these cases, the reason for the eviction frequently is related to the elder’s underlying mental health issue. The elder frequently might have been unable to recognize the need for or unaware of available services.
The problems that put elders at risk for eviction often result from elder abuse. When an elder’s mental health or memory is compromised, self-neglect can cause him to forget to pay rent, complete paperwork, or attend scheduled appointments. Some elders become unable to remember to take medication or create hazardous living environments, due to undiagnosed or untreated conditions. Others experience behavioral changes that are alarming to other tenants or landlords. In some cases, elders are targeted by others due to their vulnerability and become victims of abuse, neglect, or financial exploitation. Any of these situations puts elders at risk for loss of housing, as bills go unpaid or the elder is seen as a risk to himself and others. Often, an eviction notice is the first and only step taken by a landlord or housing authority to resolve the issue. Elders with compromised mental health are rarely in positions to properly defend themselves in eviction cases. Unfortunately, when elders are evicted from public housing, it is likely that they will spend the rest of their lives in shelters or institutionalized in a nursing home. In many cases, institutionalization is premature, costly, and unnecessary.
My Equal Justice Works Fellowship project, sponsored by Biogen and Foley Hoag, advocates for more holistic responses to situations that put elders at risk for eviction. One client faced eviction due to the conditions of his apartment, which had deteriorated due to his hoarding disorder. With a reasonable accommodation that took his disability into account, and required communication between his landlord and social worker, he was able to maintain his housing. Another client was evicted as a result of behavioral changes, stemming from an undiagnosed mental condition. After legal advocacy and social work intervention, the eviction was postponed. The client now has benefited from proper mental health treatment and continues to live safely in her apartment.
Rather than immediately resorting to eviction, which frequently exacerbates mental health issues and increases the likelihood of homelessness, landlords who recognize that a tenant’s issue has roots in a mental health condition can seek or suggest appropriate assistance for that tenant. Some individuals may benefit from mental health counseling or day programs. In other situations, money management, home care assistance, or visiting nurse services can be put in place to enable a person to remain in his or her apartment. Proper supports can alleviate the stress on an elder, minimize tension between the elder and other tenants and landlord, and ultimately prevent the types of elder abuse that contribute to elder homelessness.