Remote workers moving to Montana put poor seniors in housing shortages – Orange County Register

By Aaron Bolton | Montana Public Radio

COLUMBIA FALLS, Mont. — On a rainy afternoon in this small town just outside of Glacier National Park, Lisa Beaty and Kim Hilton prepared to sell most of their belongings before moving out of their three-bedroom, two-bathroom rental home.

Hilton, who was recovering from a broken leg, watched from his lounge chair as friends and family sorted through old hunting gear, jewelry, furniture and clothing. “The only thing that’s not for sale is the house — everything else has to go,” said Hilton, 68, while checking his blood sugar.

Hilton has type 2 diabetes, heart disease and other health issues that have left him disabled and unable to work for years. As income, it relates to the federal disability pension. Because of a shoulder injury and fibromyalgia, so does 64-year-old Beaty – Hilton’s partner of seven years. Combined, their income is about $1,500 per month.

But that’s no longer enough. Investors bought her home that year and increased the rent from $1,000 including utilities to $1,800 plus utilities.

“They don’t fire me — I can’t do that on a steady income,” Beaty said as she went through her belongings.

You have nowhere else to go. And they didn’t just lose their homes: the stress of the ordeal led them to end their relationship. Beaty planned to move into her daughter’s one-bedroom apartment.

Kim Hilton, who has type 2 diabetes, checks his blood sugar. A recent increase in his rent is forcing Hilton, who lives on a steady income, to move out of the three-bedroom rental home he shares with his partner Lisa Beaty in Columbia Falls, Montana. (Aaron Bolton/Public Radio Montana)
Kim Hilton, who has type 2 diabetes, checks his blood sugar. A recent increase in his rent is forcing Hilton, who lives on a steady income, to move out of the three-bedroom rental home he shares with his partner Lisa Beaty in Columbia Falls, Montana. (Aaron Bolton/Public Radio Montana)

Despite his poor health and the fact that he still relies on leg braces to prevent another broken leg, Hilton, who is on Medicare, planned to live in his truck while he waited to be admitted to one of the few facilities for Assisted living is becoming a vacancy in Flathead County, which is predominantly rural. The wait can be days or months.

Beaty and Hilton are part of a recent surge in homelessness among people over 60. The housing affordability crisis, caused in part by the Covid-19 pandemic, and high inflation are eroding their fixed incomes. Though data is limited, advocates for the elderly and the homeless say more adults are showing up in shelters across the country.

The problem is particularly acute in Montana, where snow has begun to fly as the long Rocky Mountain winter sets in.

Rents in Montana have skyrocketed since the pandemic began. For example, rent costs in Lewis and Clark County have risen 37% since 2019, one of the largest increases in the US, according to data from research firm CoStar Group published by the Washington Post. Nationwide, rents rose by an average of 11% in 2021.

Rapid growth in Montana and elsewhere in Mountain West has been fueled in part by an influx of high-paying remote workers attracted by spacious open spaces and ample recreational opportunities in communities already plagued by housing shortages before the pandemic. Kalispell, the largest city in Flathead County, is the fastest growing city in the United States with fewer than 50,000 residents, according to Census Bureau data.

Inflation and rising rents leave many older Americans on the brink of bankruptcy. The poverty rate for people aged 65 and over rose from 8.9% in 2020 to 10.3% in 2021, according to Ramsey Alwin, President and CEO of the National Council on Aging.

Alwin said people who depend on traditional retirement incomes like Social Security struggle to afford basic needs. “You’ll find that individuals often go about $1,000 a month short of meeting their true needs,” she said.

Lisa Beaty and Kim Hilton's three bedroom rental home in Columbia Falls, Montana. Investors who bought the property nearly doubled the rent, forcing the couple to move out. (Aaron Bolton/Public Radio Montana)
Lisa Beaty and Kim Hilton’s three bedroom rental home in Columbia Falls, Montana. Investors who bought the property nearly doubled the rent, forcing the couple to move out. (Aaron Bolton/Public Radio Montana)

As a result, many older people have to make difficult decisions about whether to pay for basic necessities like groceries and medicines or pay for rent. Others just can’t spend their money and have to leave their homes. An upcoming 8.7% increase in the cost of living with Social Security benefits will help offset the impact of inflation, which was 8.2% in the 12 months ended September. But Alwin said that won’t be enough to stem the tide of seniors losing homes because of rising rents.

Montana is home to one of the oldest populations in the country. According to a recent survey of older adults in the state, about 44% had housing issues in the past year, and only 10% felt housing was affordable.

Shelters for the homeless in Montana and across the country are reporting that more seniors have been showing up to their doors in the past year, many of whom have been unable to pay rent or find new housing after their homes have been vacant among them, Steve Berg said, Vice President for Programs and Policy at the National Alliance to End Homelessness.

Berg said it’s impossible to say how many seniors are becoming homeless for the first time because national homelessness counts don’t break down the number of people age 25 and older into smaller age groups, and other data isn’t detailed enough to distinguish people who are homeless lose for the first time from older people who are chronically homeless.

Community organizers who work directly with the homeless have a deep understanding of how the trend is affecting their areas.

At the Poverello Center in Missoula, Montana, people in their 60s are the second largest age group served by the property, said program director Lisa Sirois. She said she saw people in their 80s and 90s who had nowhere to go and that the shelter had to turn away some of them because it wasn’t designed to meet their needs.

People in wheelchairs have trouble moving through the narrow hallways, she said, and the shelter’s elevator often breaks down, forcing people to use the stairs to get to the dormitories. The dorms are lined with bunk beds, which also present challenges.

“Elderly customers or people with disabilities can’t usually do a top bunk,” Sirois said.

Brian Guyer, director of the Human Resource Development Council Bozeman’s housing division, said if his shelter cannot accommodate an elderly person, it must ask the person to leave as well.

One memory that still haunts him, he says, is that of an elderly man who froze to death three days after he was denied a place at the Bozeman Animal Shelter because he was incontinent and had mobility issues. “He was actually found outside of a Lowe’s store here in Bozeman,” Guyer said.

And as the number of elderly homeless increases, his staff, who are already overworked and underpaid, can’t take care of everyone, he said.

To prevent the worst consequences, state and national groups are proposing a number of changes.

The Montana Coalition to Solve Homelessness, a new organization planning to lobby shelter providers during the legislative session beginning in January, wants the state to change its Medicaid program to make shelters eligible for funding. They would use the money to provide Medicaid services that could help seniors living in a shelter, or to pay for case management services to help seniors navigate benefit programs that provide nutritional assistance and subsidized housing, or assisted living facilities Find housing and nursing homes.

But the number of places available in these facilities is shrinking. Nationwide, nursing home closures have displaced thousands of residents. In Montana, eight nursing homes have either closed this year or are scheduled to close by the end of December, Montana health officials said. Rose Hughes, executive director of the Montana Health Care Association, said other facilities struggle to keep their doors open because Medicaid reimbursement rates are often lower than their operating costs.

Other advocacy groups want to focus on economic stabilization initiatives that would help older people stay in their homes. One idea is to change how Social Security payments are calculated by tying them to the Elder Index, an online calculator that estimates the cost of living by location. But that would require congressional approval.

“Your current home is your best chance of obtaining housing for this demographic,” said Mark Hinderlie, CEO of Hearth, which focuses on senior homelessness nationally.

Then there’s increasing the supply of housing, which most people think is a long-term solution. In Montana, Republican Gov. Greg Gianforte is proposing policies that would provide incentives to encourage the construction of more commercial housing. But critics say developers are unlikely to create enough subsidized housing.

Any type of open plan unit can’t come soon enough for Hilton. As he leaned against his truck in the driveway of his now former home, he hugged Beaty as she sobbed into his shoulder before they parted.

He drove off looking for a place to camp and waited for a call from a local assisted living facility with an open position. He hoped the call would come before winter temperatures hit.

This story is part of a partnership that includes Montana Public Radio, NPR and KHN.

KHN (Kaiser Health News) is a national newsroom that produces in-depth journalism on health issues. Along with Policy Analysis and Polling, KHN is one of the three major operational programs of the KFF (Kaiser Family Foundation). KFF is a donated non-profit organization that provides information on health issues to the nation.

https://www.ocregister.com/2022/11/15/homelessness-among-older-people-is-on-the-rise-driven-by-inflation-and-the-housing-crunch/ Remote workers moving to Montana put poor seniors in housing shortages – Orange County Register

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