JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (WJHL) – As the economic impacts of COVID-19 and inflation continue to surface throughout the region, the nature of homelessness is changing in the Tri-Cities. In fact, it’s getting older.
To better understand the challenges that face local governments and organizations, News Channel 11 sat down with Anne Cooper, executive director of the Appalachian Regional Coalition on Homelessness (ARCH). The organization, largely funded by federal grants from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), serves as a coordinator for those experiencing homelessness or in danger of losing housing across several counties:
- Carter County
- Greene County
- Hancock County
- Hawkins County
- Johnson County
- Sullivan County
- Unicoi County
- Washington County
Every year, local organizations that receive HUD funds must take a headcount of all people using their services. Starting on a day in the last week of January, Point-In-Time (PIT) counts start at 12 p.m. and continue until noon the next day. Everyone in the shelter, temporary housing or program is asked a series of questions to better understand what local and national homeless populations are experiencing. In 2022’s counts from January 26, Cooper said data analysts spotted a disturbing trend: the numbers of homeless elderly are going up.
“The cost of gas, the cost of food, the cost of rent, everything’s going up,” Cooper said. “They just can’t make it, and so this is what we’re seeing and it’s become a real problem.”
Cooper cited several potential causes for the rise, including the increased rate of early retirement by Baby Boomers seen during the height of COVID-19 throughout 2020 and 2021. With early retirement, social security benefits are decreased up to a maximum of 30% depending on when a person begins receiving funds. Cooper said populations on fixed incomes facing repeated price increases have few options to turn to.
“We’re seeing this as a trend and a real problem in that we have an aging population anyhow,” Cooper said. “And with the economics surrounding COVID we already have quite a few grandparents who are raising grandchildren.”
PIT counts do not specify the exact age of each person surveyed, but additional data from ARCH revealed a 57% increase in homeless individuals 65 years of age and up from 2021 to 2022. In ARCH’s multi-county area, the total increased from 14 to 22 people seen in one night. People 60 and up saw a 43% increase in homelessness within ARCH’s region, up to 53 from the 37 measured in 2021.
That increase differs drastically from the overall homelessness statistics seen in the area. From 2020 to 2022, the total of homeless people seen in one night increased from 386 to 392, a rise of only ~1.5%.
Cooper said the 2021 count was unable to reach large parts of unsheltered populations due to concerns around COVID-19, so full totals from the time aren’t representative of the actual population in the region.
“They fall through the cracks,” Cooper said. “They’ve worked all their lives and they’re in rental units, and the other thing we’ve seen go along with this is we’ve seen a 30% increase in rents.”
And for those who find themselves out of housing at retirement age, Cooper and ARCH staff have seen the slope into poverty become even slipperier — even for those that may be physically capable of going back to work.
“Unless you live in downtown Johnson City, and have the money for a bus pass, and have a job that’s from 8 to 5, Monday through Friday, because the buses don’t run on the weekends,” Cooper said. “We have this whole interconnected issue in our area where even if they could, could they get a job?”
For these people, Cooper said overwhelming costs can mean eviction notices and imminent loss of housing.
“Where we really saw a big, big, influx of calls and referrals was with homeless prevention,” Cooper said.
Of the 1,426 households (of all ages) referred to ARCH in 2021, 787 (55%) were in need of homeless prevention services to find housing before eviction or removal from their current home. ARCH’s second largest category (39%) was rapid rehousing of individuals who are classified as literally homeless, meaning they are currently sleeping on the street when they come into contact with ARCH outreach members.
You can find the 2020 and 2022 PIT County reports by ARCH below: