Life at the edge

Older homeless people survive at the margins. Because they are
homeless or at risk of homelessness they tend to be less visible
and less vocal than other groups. They have become the “forgotten
homeless” in policy debates and service provision, despite the
government’s initiatives to address social exclusion.

An evaluation of a funding programme for older homeless people’s
services by the University of the West of England confirms the
marginalisation of older homeless people. But it also reveals how
voluntary agencies working in this area also survive at the
margins.1 The funding climate leads to fragile
organisations and, in turn, fragile services. Voluntary
organisations have provided services for single homeless people for
many decades. But the culture in which they operate has changed
greatly, as have the services they deliver, because of the
demanding funding environment within which they now have to

The research challenges images of older homeless people as
tramp-like figures who choose their lifestyle. Rather, older
people’s stories reveal how a patchwork of difficult experiences,
circumstances, and issues can often lead to to homelessness.

Older people become, or remain, homeless because they are unaware
of, or alienated from, services. Most have worked regularly in
earlier adult life; many have had spouses and children, and led
settled lives until they became homeless.

One older owner-occupier described how she developed health
problems and had to give up work. Having been given poor and
inaccurate advice, when her small savings ran out she had to sell
her home and ended up homeless. She was shocked by this, saying: “I
lost my job, they shouldn’t leave you with no money, they shouldn’t
leave innocent people to end up on the street, the government
should do something about it.”

Another older man lost his job and home after taking time off to
care for his mother. Changes in the job market left him unable to
return to employment after she died, and he ended up on the
streets. He struggled to cope with the statutory services, saying:
“I’d been out of work a long time but they seemed to think, ‘You
should be able to cope, you’re intelligent’, so I got no

Other older people have suffered trauma and abuse that has
contributed to their homelessness. Many are estranged from family
and friends. This can be so even for those who have been securely
housed in the past. Some older people interviewed spoke sadly about
this. One man said: “I haven’t seen my sister in years. I can’t
remember her house number.”

Despite their difficult circumstances, older people vulnerable to
homelessness can benefit greatly from specialist services. Many of
those visited for the research had been homeless but were
successfully re-housed and took great pride in their

It is clear that specialist staff are key to the process of
supporting homeless older people and to helping them gain access to
housing, care and support services. They understand their needs and
know what resources are available. Project workers also develop
skilled and sensitive ways of working with older people who can
often be chronically vulnerable. One project took a planned
casework approach with 15 older people, working flexibly to help
them move into accommodation if possible or to improve their
quality of life by accessing appropriate services if they chose to
remain on the streets. The worker referred people on if they were
willing to try “going inside”.

Older people who are recovering from the experience or threat of
homelessness need specialist advice and support in areas including
benefits, money management, as well as access to housing and
medical and social care services. Others, successfully resettled
into appropriate accommodation, may need support for some time, if
not indefinitely, in order to remain housed.

Older people who have been rough sleepers for many years may have
entrenched and complex difficulties, including serious mental and
physical health issues. Alongside more immediate needs, these older
people also require assistance to adjust to a radically different
lifestyle inside.

Support is fragile however because of difficulties with finance.
One project and its host organisation closed during the lifetime of
the programme through unsuccessful funding applications. In
another, a manager described previously certain sources of funding
coming back with nothing to offer, or offering only 20 per cent of
the total requested. One manager said: “The competition for funding
is much greater now than it was, and we’re not being as successful
as we were.”

There are many factors that create uncertainty for workers and
projects – and therefore older, homeless people. Securing long-term
funding for work with “unpopular” groups such as homeless older
people is especially problematic.

In recent years funders have made greater use of time-limited
grants, which heavily influence approaches to service provision and
delivery. Projects are particularly vulnerable when grants are
coming to an end, and uncertain futures give rise to insecure
employment and service delivery. Sustainable solutions are
difficult to achieve, yet the needs of older people vulnerable to
homelessness are often ongoing.

Recruitment, retention and management issues present voluntary
organisations with challenges in trying to fill posts for work with
older, homeless people. Most agencies are only likely to be able to
offer short-term or temporary contracts and may be limited in the
support they can offer staff who work in isolated areas. In the
final months of funding, projects are particularly vulnerable to
workers leaving when concluding work with users, report writing and
contributing to future grant applications are crucial

All these issues combine to create an insecure environment in which
services for older homeless people operate. Ultimately, it is the
beneficiaries of these services who are adversely affected and who
bear the brunt of the disruptions that result.

Older homeless people have complex needs, which are difficult to
address in mainstream homeless or advice services. Specialist staff
can help older people avoid or escape a cycle of homelessness. Yet
the projects working in this area face their own survival
difficulties. Some voluntary organisations studied had developed
ways to tackle these. Survival strategies have helped them to
address funding anomalies and employment issues, which can create
uncertain futures for projects and workers. But most importantly
these strategies have helped to maintain support for “forgotten”
homeless older people who exist at the margins, alongside the
organisations that support them.

About the study 

The researchers evaluated a three-year programme which funded 17
projects involving Help the Aged, the Housing Associations’
Charitable Trust and homelessness charity Crisis. These mainly
provided direct services for older people vulnerable to
homelessness. Services included: street outreach and day centre
services; resettlement and tenancy sustainment; and housing and
benefits advice.    

Hazel Morbey is a research fellow, Jenny Pannell a
visiting research fellow and Robin Means an associate dean at the
faculty of health and social care, University of the West of
England, Bristol.


1 J Pannell, H Morbey and R
Means, Surviving at the Margins: Older Homeless  People and the
Organisations that Support Them
, Help the Aged,

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