Palm Beach County nonprofit fills growing gap in housing, social services for homeless
Until about a year ago, Mary Hall was homeless, without a job, and driving around West Palm Beach looking for a safe place to call home.
“I was sleeping in my car and it was hard,” the 65−year−old woman told WLRN.
Now, after work, she travels a short distance to housing provided by The Lord’s Place in West Palm Beach, one of the largest nonprofits serving people experiencing homelessness in Palm Beach County.
The organization helps scores of people — especially among people in the LGBTQ community and among older people who’ve never thought they’d be without a place to live. It recently renovated its 25,000-square foot headquarters.
Housing advocates say they've seen a disturbing spike in homelessness among older adults that may worsen amid skyrocketing rents and a dire shortage in affordable housing.
The Lord's Place offers clients ways to find employment, meals, and places to live. But they’re also finding it increasingly difficult to find affordable housing for everyone.
Diana Stanley, CEO of the Lord’s Place and a longtime affordable housing advocate, expects her staff to support about 3,000 people this year in Palm Beach County, up from 1,700 last year.
Among the biggest challenges: housing. The median sale price for a home in the county hovers around $470,000 — and the gap of whether to buy or rent has narrowed. And that has impacted temporary shelters.
“The rent is now as expensive as the mortgages. And so we are dealing with not even being able to find housing that we can rent for our clients to put them in so it is a huge issue,” Stanley said.
The county’s Point-In-Time homeless count, an annual survey of people experiencing homelessness, saw a significant spike: 1,855 people were living in the streets or in shelters, up from 1,404 last year. The numbers jumped for families as well. The survey is done in January of every year.
Through parks and alleyways and other unsheltered spaces, outreach teams browse through the county in an effort to count and interview homeless people.
Most of the individuals were concentrated in cities like West Palm Beach, Riviera Beach, the western part of the county like Belle Glade. Lake Worth Beach and Delray Beach also have a high number of people without a home.
The survey, mandated by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, helps the county measure what approach to take for providing housing and providing resources to groups that need it the most.
Getting people back on their feet
For many years, the Lord’s Place has been a well-known safe haven, a dependable social resource that aims to get people back on their feet.
Stanley and her staff often meet with formerly homeless people in the “engagement center” area downstairs, where many work — cooking and washing dishes in the "Cafe Joshua” nearby.
“We use food as a tool for engagement. So we want people to sit and eat but while they’re sitting and eating we want to have a conversation,” Stanley said. “Where are you in your life? What can you do? What can we help you with?’”
Stanley said she’s seeing an increase in unsheltered homelessness among older adults, especially men, “predominantly because there’s really no programs that are set aside for someone who is 70 years old and experiencing homelessness for the first time.”
“And that is a national phenomenon we’re starting to see but we’re really seeing it locally,” she added.
People ages 50 and older make up more than half of single homeless adults, many of whom “first became homeless after age 50,” according to a study by the American Society on Aging.
"Ending homelessness among older adults will require increasing the supply of affordable housing, targeted prevention efforts, and expanding permanent supportive housing, adapted to older adult needs,” researchers said.
The lack of family and interpersonal connection is another concern among advocates for the homeless.
Stanley said she and her staff have encountered a number of older people with adult children who don’t know their parents are living on the streets, noting that older parents’ sense of shame and pride can often prevent adequate support from loved ones.
The compounding issues aren’t going away anytime soon but after the organization reached its $20 million fundraising goal, they’re working on several new solutions: a new facility for 55+ older men, 6 cottages serving about 15 men. And a new housing facility in Lake Worth Beach for intergenerational single women. It will cater toward women 55 and older who will have 50 percent of the beds and women 18-35 will occupy the other half. It opens in October.
Stanley said producing more shared spaces can reduce the stress around finding a single−family home for each individual.
“We’re doing more shared housing,” Stanley said. “We’re trying to reconnect people with family members. Family reunification is becoming more important as we move forward.”
“Many would have died in the streets if we didn’t have programs like this.”
Hall, who was homeless until last year, said she sought to stay connected by attending church because she wanted to preserve her dignity through prayer but still felt invisible to the broader society.
“It was humbling. It was very hurtful because you feel like, ‘why am I in this place? What am I doing here?’ Hall said. “But, God — he has a reason.”