Too old to work but too young for Social Security, a growing population falls through the cracks

Too old to work but too young for Social Security, a growing population falls through the cracks

Edward James Jr. is 56 years old. He has no permanent address and lives in a tent in the woods. James says he is lucky to have the tent, the only steady roof he has had over his head for the last two years after he lost his job in construction. He does not stay in the tent city located in a separate area of Beaumont because he prefers his solitude, but the mosquitoes cause him some discomfort at his hidden campsite, as do the heat and his medical issues.

James is one of a growing number of aging homeless people, people deemed too old for work and too young for Medicare or regular Social Security benefits.

“I’m fighting for SSI disability,” said James. “I’ve been turned down three times. I’m trying to get it again.

“They expect me to do the same work I did when I was in my younger days, ma’am. I can’t do that work anymore. I was doing construction work, general labor work, really. At that time, I could lift 50-pound sacks. I can’t do that anymore.

“Right now, I’m dealing with my lower back problem, my sciatic nerve. Cataracts are forming on both my eyes. I wear glasses, but still I have to squint. My eyes start watering and stuff.

“I’ve still got to fight with Social Security people.”

Statistics from the U.S. Census Bureau indicate that while there is a small population of homeless people over 65, the number of homeless people aged 50 to 64 has grown over time. The National Health Care for the Homeless Council reported in late 2013 that the age composition of the homeless population has shifted dramatically over the past two decades, with the median age of single adults increasing from 35 years in 1990 to 50 years in 2010, the most recent census report. The majority of unstably housed adults over 50 were between 50 and 64 years old, with only 5 percent age 65 and over. That is partly due to safety net programs that exist for those over 65. Those between the ages of 50 and 64 tend to “fall through the cracks” in spite of having health issues similar to those much older due to difficulties associated with staying out on the streets.

Paula O’Neal is the executive director of Some Other Place in Beaumont. The center provides hot meals for hungry people Monday-Friday at lunchtime, and its companion center, Henry’s Place, provides people with a place to shower, wash clothes, and receive mail if they have no permanent address. O’Neal said many homeless people don’t make it to 65 when they would be eligible for more programs and services.

“A lot of homeless people do not get to what we would classify as ‘elderly,’” she said. “But, another reason you don’t see that many is because there are programs and services available for people who are 65 and older. There’s more empathy for elderly too, and there are fewer elderly.

“Homeless people don’t age well to begin with because of lack of healthcare, lack of sanitary living, lack of nutrition, the reliance on substances to survive the streets. There are a lot of reasons why they don’t get to be old, but even those that do get to be old sometimes can get off of the streets because there are nursing facilities, there is senior citizen housing available, there is Social Security, SSI. There are benefits available to those that can reach 65, and those that have some disability that they can apply.

“For a lot of people, their disabilities worsen as they get older. They may apply for disability in their 40s or 50s and they’re denied, but by the time they get to be 60, it’s gotten worse and they can work get the disability check.

“Full retirement now is 66. If you make it to full retirement, you qualify for what has been paid in for you to Social Security. Of course, Medicare kicks in at 65. So, there is more government assistance available to the elderly.

“That person who is 55 or 60, they don’t qualify for that yet. When we encounter someone who is elderly or disabled, we call Adult Protective Services (APS). APS is able to get just about anybody that needs to be in a nursing home in a nursing home, but of course it’s difficult finding nursing homes that take Medicaid or that will take someone who is totally indigent.”

Jesse Jones was at Henry’s Place on June 14. Jones is 62 years old and has lived in Beaumont for two years without a permanent address after his home in Woodville was destroyed.

“I was living in a trailer up in Woodville, and fire took my trailer and my truck,” said Jones. “It was an old trailer and an old truck, and I didn’t have insurance on it.”

After the fire, Jones ended up in Beaumont with no place to go. He has been living on the streets ever since.

Unlike James, Jones does not have significant health problems, but he faces other challenges and has seen a disturbing new trend emerge in drug use among homeless and poverty-stricken individuals.

“I’m lucky,” he said. “I don’t have a lot of medical problems. I don’t drink, and I quit smoking. It’s hard, but it’s not impossible. I’ve got a few places I stay that keep me out of the rain. Being able to wash clothes and take a shower like they do here really helps. People don’t think about it, but it helps a lot.

“I don’t really do anything to put myself in danger, but there have been some confrontations. You can tell by how people act how they are, whether they are crazy, mentally ill, or drunks, or crackheads or whatever.

“Alcohol is easy to get, and so is crack, really, if you want it. Most of the alcoholics are hardcore. They’ve been alcoholics for a long time, most of the ones that are out here.

“Then, you’ve got people smoking synthetic weed. One guy died last week; they called him ‘Green Eyes,’ smoking that woo. He stroked out. When you start smoking stuff that says right on the pack, ‘not for human consumption,’ you know you’ve got a problem.”

Jones works when it’s offered, doing odd jobs and cutting the grass. “Anything I can get,” he said. According to him, the people who hire homeless people from around Henry’s Place don’t offer a lot of money for the work, sometimes giving them $30 for eight hours of hard labor. But with help from Some Other Place and Henry’s Place, he is making it.

James said he has not found any work, and he scraps metal he collects in order to secure cash for food and other necessities. The gearshift on his bicycle recently broke, so he is having some trouble scrapping, and said a new bike would really help him with collecting metal and with getting to Henry’s Place to wash. According to James, because he is an older man, he is not the job applicant employers are looking to hire.

“I’m going to ask you a question,” he said. “You’re running a business, right? I’m 56 years old. I’ve got lower back problems. I’ve got this; I’ve got that. Now, behind me comes a 23-year-old. Which one would you hire?

“It’s longevity. If they hire me at 56 years old, they might get maybe two years at the most. Say they trained me for the forklift. That’s money they could be using to train a 23-year-old that’s going to be there 25, 30 years. That’s longevity. No company in the world is going to put that kind of money in me at my age. Nobody.”

O’Neal said she has seen evidence to support James’ theory, and added that homeless people often face obstacles when searching for employment regardless of their age.

“The barriers to getting employment and maintaining employment for the homeless are extremely high – no address, no transportation, no alarm clock, no way to know what time it is to get to work, no telephone, although some have cell phones, but not everyone. It’s overwhelming.”

O’Neal explained, “Let’s take Texas Workforce, for example. They like to show positive results and outcomes. A homeless person walks into Texas Workforce, obviously homeless. The first thing they’re going to tell them is, ‘There’s a computer over there. Go sit and somebody will be with you in a minute.’

“A nice-looking college graduate – dressed nicely, speaking well – comes in next. Now, do you think they are going to say, ‘There’s a computer over there. Go over there.’ Or, are they going to say, ‘How can I help you?’

“I’m not saying it always happens, but I do know someone that did go undercover because they were having trouble getting some of their (homeless) people in, and that’s the way she was treated. She went in dressed very shabbily, they told her to go sit at the computer, and no one ever came and helped her. That’s human nature. I don’t want to be critical of them because it’s the same way all over, even here.

“Sometimes I go to my door and see one of my homeless guys, and I’m like, ‘What do you want?’ But then, if I go to the door and it’s the lady from the Jefferson County Republicans that may donate money, I’m going to buck up a little bit. That’s the response they get everywhere they go.”

Jones said the biggest challenge he faces daily is finding shelter. Although he says the tent city in Beaumont where many homeless people sleep does not have a big crime problem that he has seen, he doesn’t like it there because it gets too muddy. He sleeps wherever he can find a concrete slab to avoid mud and bugs.

The Salvation Army is the only emergency shelter in Beaumont, besides the women and children’s shelter. People in a bad situation can stay there for free for the first couple of nights, but must pay $10 per day for a bed after that time. The faith-based organization requires patrons to go to AA meetings and to church. They have service in their chapel, and if someone goes to a different church on Sunday, they cannot go back to the shelter until after 5 p.m. Of course, drugs and alcohol are prohibited, just like at Henry’s Place.

Jones said when he used to go to the Salvation Army, the beds were generally full. There was another facility “before his time” but it closed down, he said, due to issues with crime.

“The problem is, you’d have to have 24-hour security to keep the drug dealers out or people who don’t stay there,” he said. “They had one, but it closed down because they were selling drugs in the bathroom.”

Pam Lewis of the Southeast Texas Regional Planning Commission said one reason for the lack of temporary emergency shelters is that the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) has shifted its paradigm from temporary emergency housing to permanent supportive housing.

“They used to put people in an emergency shelter, then in transitional housing for about 24 months where people staying there were in counseling, they assisted with cooking or other chores for work, and got help with any alcohol or drug problems. Then, after 24 months, they could try permanent housing.

“HUD decided that didn’t work very well. Now, they get them into permanent supportive housing first and bring the services to them. They are trying to do away with emergency temporary housing.”

Lewis said the Spindletop Center, which provides services for the homeless with mental illness, recently received a new grant for permanent supportive housing. The center also has apartments homeless people can apply for if they qualify.

Jones said he believes the general public would not want a homeless shelter in their neighborhoods, and remarked that the city had even asked O’Neal to move her facilities over to Gulf Street.

“What they’d like to do is shut it all down and run everybody off, that’s what they’d like to do,” he commented, adding, “Anywhere you go you’re going to have people who cause problems. Here, they stay across the street. They drink and congregate over there. Whoever owns that property, the city just got in touch with them to put a ‘No Trespassing’ sign up there. The city can’t do it, so they had to get in touch with the owner.

“It’s always been like that in Beaumont. They used to give you a bus pass, as long as you were going out of town. As long as you’re going out of town, they’d find the money to put you on a bus. They want the streets clean.”

O’Neal said she has heard complaints in the past about people congregating across the street from Henry’s Place, and she has encouraged the masses to disperse.

“With Henry’s Place, we are constantly having to fight them to keep it clean, and they are always hanging around. I tell them just not to hang out is such large groups. It repulses people. I tell them, ‘You’re hurting my ability to help.’

“My rule is, no drugs, no alcohol, no sex and no profanity. You can hang down here as much as you want, but be respectful. Sadly, so many of them are so far gone.”

Yet O’Neal perseveres in spite of the innumerable obstacles she faces, and provides help for as many people as grant funding and donations allow.

O’Neal recently received a call from a former patron of Henry’s Place and Some Other Place. He told her he had been clean and sober for the last nine months and had found work and a place to live. He called to thank her for treating him with respect.

“I didn’t deserve your respect when I was there, but because you were encouraging and there for us, I just wanted to call and thank you,” O’Neal recalled him saying.

Another man called her for help and said, “Thank you.”

When she responded, “Don’t thank me yet – I don’t know if I can help,” he replied, “At least you listened.”

“That’s what people really need,” she remarked. “Most of the people who we see don’t have anybody who listens to them. We pretend they’re not there.”

O’Neal admitted the job she does wears on her, but said she keeps doing it because she cares. She believes it is important that homeless people have advocates, people in their corner there to help them when they need it and to speak on their behalf when they are not getting a response themselves. Often, all it takes for a homeless person to get into an assistance program or to receive social services is for her or one of her staff to pick up the phone and call for them, she said. She intends to keep up her good works for as long as she is physically and financially able.

To learn more about Henry’s Place and Some Other Place or to donate, visit the website at, or call (409) 832-7976. Every donation makes a difference.