The shortage of affordable housing options for seniors

From The Catholic Star Herald, Sept. 3, 2015      Back to Poverty Reflection Series Listing

Curtis Johnson is executive director of the Diocesan Housing Services Corporation, Inc., a non-profit of the Diocese of Camden that operates eight affordable housing facilities in the Diocese of Camden, seven of them for seniors.

housing services corporationOne day, I received a call from an applicant for housing who we will call Mrs. Smith. Her income was too low to pay the rent at one of our “affordable” properties and she was upset. We referred her to the local Section 8 office where she secured a housing voucher making her eligible to live at our property. Vouchers, however, are in short supply, so most cases don’t have this happy ending.

Mrs. Smith lived at our property for many years, enjoying activities, making friends and sending me letters (a couple nice ones, too) from time to time. Then the aging process manifested and her mental health was challenged. About seven years into her tenancy, Mrs. Smith began to display dementia symptoms, which eventually led to an Alzheimer’s diagnosis.

Her increasing challenges affected me personally because I had witnessed the long battle my mother waged against this cruel disease. Aided by the dogged determination of my father and support and assistance from me, my siblings, our spouses, children and other family and friends, my mother fought the good fight and remained home until she died. Mom had tremendous support and some resources, but it was still an exhausting battle for her and the family.

In Mrs. Smith’s case, her children lived far away, were sometimes unresponsive, and at times could not help even when they wanted to. The Diocesan Housing Services Corporation staff’s role moved way beyond property management. Service coordinators searched for free or low cost medical resources, which Mrs. Smith sometimes declined depending on her condition that day. Maintenance personnel observed behavioral changes and notified management. Property managers contacted the next of kin and tried to convince them to take action. I coordinated the diocesan service network of Catholic Charities and Diocesan Health Services (soon the Vitality Catholic Healthcare Services will be added to the mix) while trying to stay professional and emotionally detached because of my own personal experience.

We struggled through a few incidents before Mrs. Smith’s family finally transitioned her to an appropriate facility.

Mrs. Smith’s case provides a good example of the struggles faced by aging seniors, pressured on the one hand to remain in independent living situations by the federal “Aging in Place” directive, and on the other unable to afford rents and facing declining health and increased mental health needs. Yet this population often goes unnoticed in discussions of poverty.

Recently, I read this quote from Pope Francis in a Catholic Charities USA housing document:

“The measure of the greatness of a society is found in the way it treats those most in need, those who have nothing apart from their poverty.”

The Diocesan Housing Services Corporation strives to live these words by providing affordable housing for seniors. “Affordable housing” is too often an afterthought for people until a crisis is upon them. Then they come face to face with the woeful shortage of options. Many believe that affordable housing is for “other people.” In reality, affordable senior housing is for all people, and the Diocese of Camden does what it can to provide seniors with quality choices.

Every day, Diocesan Housing Services Corporation (DHSC) employees work hard to provide quality affordable housing to seniors, many of whom come from very sad and unsafe environments, including homelessness, having lived in cars or in the homes of relatives and friends. The majority come to us after suffering the loss a spouse and their spouse’s income, thus impacting their financial stability. The challenges of aging, such as mental health issues, simply mean we have to work even harder to carry out the words of the Pope.

Please pray with us as we strive to build, in the pope’s words, a truly “great” society, where our seniors, finding themselves in poverty they never anticipated, are not left behind.

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