Cheryl Tee, 63, sat on a bench in Civic Space Park in Phoenix with all her property stowed in between her purse and a piece of luggage lying in front of her. She walks with a limp, moving one shoulder forward before her body follows, and her hair is matted flatly against her head.
Tee is one of many homeless seniors in the Valley that are part of a growing “crisis,” Lisa Glow, the CEO of Central Arizona Shelter Services, said.
On June 9, she said she was forced to choose between being unable to afford food while having a roof over her head and living on the streets with the money she had.
“If I was going to be destitute, I said, well, it’s not going to help me any ‘cause I got expenses out here. I have to eat,” Tee said.
“It messes with my mental health. It messes with my body, my bones, my thinking process. I’m cold, I’m always agitated,” Tee said.
She grew up in a military family and worked as a sewing machine operator and a nurse’s assistant during her career in San Diego before financial hardships forced her to move to Arizona.
Lisa Glow runs the Central Arizona Shelter Service, the largest emergency homeless shelter in Arizona, taking in more than 400 people every night of the year.
“There’s not enough Section 8 housing, there’s not enough Section 8 vouchers, there’s not enough housing for people to afford,” Glow said.
Seniors make up 31 percent of the population at CASS, and that number is rising, Glow said. The elderly population at Central Arizona Shelter Services has increased 6 percent in the last two years, a crisis Glow calls “the silver tsunami.”
The American Association of Retired Persons, an advocacy group that lobbies to help solve issues facing retired and elderly people, says that the rising prices of housing are forcing many of people on fixed incomes like Social Security to be evicted and live in the streets.
“We have a lot of concerns, especially when there is a little bit of a boom, seniors often get squeezed out,” Dana Kennedy, the AARP state director of Arizona, said about Arizona’s housing.
This summer, the median prices of homes surpassed the apex of the 2000s housing bubble, which saw home values increase 50 percent in one year and median home value reach $264,000, according to Arizona Regional Multiple Listing Service.
The prices this time around are growing at a much steadier rate, which means that those who are homeless do not need to weather a storm of surging prices, but get used to the climate of high housing costs.
Since May 2014, home values have increased in value 5-10 percent annually, according to the Arizona Regional Multiple Listing Service.
Glow said more seniors will continue to be unable to afford homes on Social Security as housing costs rise.
“There’s no rent control and there’s no way to keep people in their homes. Even to someone getting $1,200 a month social security, if their rent goes up to $1,000 – boom – they can’t afford it, and they become homeless,” Glow said.
The median amount of monthly benefits received by Arizona retirees in 2012 was $1,050, according to the Social Security Administration office.
“It’s because of the economy that I can’t afford to live anywhere. I have to choose between eating and keeping myself dressed and living on the ground,” Tee said. “You’re going to be on a waiting list, it don’t matter where you go.”
In March, Central Arizona Shelter Services closed its overflow shelter because of funding cuts, Glow said.
“About 300 people a month are being turned away from shelter who need it. That’s a community problem that has to be solved by our elected officials,” Glow said.
Aside from the growing issue of affordable housing for seniors, those on the street are more likely to be disabled, sick and the victims of crime, according to the National Center for Biotechnology Information.
“You always have to worry about your life,” Tee said. “You need to go to bed early before the sun goes down, because when its dark every creature or whatever is something wrong. And you don’t know, so you can’t sleep nowhere by yourself.”
In June, a 70-year-old homeless woman in Scottsdale was beaten, raped and killed by a 23-year-old man. She was found the next morning face down in a pool of her own blood and her skirt pulled up to her waist. She frequented the patios of local shops and the business community held a vigil after her death, according to local Scottsdale shop owner Lynne Scrzuba.
Glow said their health issues are a massive problem and 50 percent of those at the shelter are disabled.
“There’s more chronic health issues,” Glow said. “A medical crisis sometimes puts them into homelessness. They get beat up on the streets more too, it’s not safe.”
Between combating flu-like illnesses and being the victim of crime, Tee said that she isolates herself from other people and only trusts a handful of people.
“There’s a lot to deal with when you’re living on the ground,” Tee said.