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Opinion

Learning Matters: Homeless and marginally housed seniors face unique challenges

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A three-story senior living facility and two new parking garages have been proposed to abut the existing four-story Plaza Verdugo Medical Center building at 1809 Verdugo Blvd. The building currently has surface parking only.
(File Photo)

“Mom, what’s your five-year plan?” our daughter asked recently from her home in Milwaukee.

She wanted to make sure her dad and I are looking ahead to the possibility that one of us will reach a point where we can no longer make it up the 22 stairs leading to our front door.

While affirming that she and her brothers will step in to help as needed whenever the time comes, she recognizes that her brothers live even farther from Glendale than she does. Having a plan will ease the way for all of us.

She knows the story of the woman who rented our house for close to 40 years before we bought it in 1981. Our neighbors told us she got stuck on the stairs one day and had to move into assisted living, after which the landlords, who were also aging, eventually decided to sell their property.

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“Oh, don’t worry; we’ll manage,” I tried to assure her, while praising her forward-thinking instincts.

But as I reflect on our prospects, as homeowners with retirement accounts, a will and trust in place, and supportive and communicative children, I wonder how many other adult children have even more pressing concerns about their aging parents.

I wonder especially about the families of seniors with more limited incomes, living far from their families, like many of the individuals I’ve come to know in my years volunteering with homeless and marginally housed individuals.

Many of the folks I’ve met at the Sunday Lunch Program, hosted each week in Glendale by volunteers at several area churches, are seniors who came here years ago from the Midwest or beyond, much as many of Glendale’s long-established families did two or three generations ago.

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They’re all part of the great migration who’ve sought California’s promise — advertised long before housing prices got so high. But unlike Glendale’s successfully established families, these individuals came away from their families, not with them. I wonder to what extent stories like theirs help explain our state’s homeless crisis.

I confess I know only snippets about these lives that have intersected with mine.

There’s Wayne, a long-familiar and welcome presence at Sunday lunches. Our connection grew closer five years ago when we discovered mutual links to Wisconsin. After hearing about our daughter and her family’s move to Milwaukee, he told me he’s from Racine, just down the road from Milwaukee.

I told him Racine was the birthplace of my Grandma Becky, and that we drove there on one of our recent visits. We’ve been comparing notes on life along Lake Michigan ever since.

Wayne’s been thinking more and more about moving back home, especially since recent health issues sent him to the hospital, an experience that compounded his ongoing worries about housing.

Despite his preference for our weather and his ties to friends here, he’s drawn to the prospect of having family nearby and paying cheaper rents. He went back home last year thinking he might stay, only to return after a few months.

He left again a few weeks ago, maybe for good this time, he told his friends.

Tim is another Sunday Lunch friend, whom I met close to 20 years ago. For all that time, he’s lived alone in a bachelor apartment — one room with a sink and a microwave, with a bathroom down the hall — across the alley from my church.

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I’ve seen and talked with him often when we’ve crossed paths, as he ventured out to the 7-Eleven or the grocery store and I headed to choir, a meeting or the church kitchen.

Tim came to California from Chicago in 1976, after he and his ex-wife were laid off from their jobs. In his working days, he had a variety of jobs, none of them for very long, he said.

He’s been retired most of the time I’ve known him, living on his modest Social Security benefits. He always pays his rent on time, the apartment manager told me, and gets along with the other tenants.

He’s a quiet, genial man who likes to play chess, make small bets at Santa Anita, watch basketball with a neighbor in the building and keep up on the local news.

Back in 2005, just after I’d decided to run for the school board but before I’d made any announcement or mention of it beyond my family and a few friends, he suggested I enter the race. That suggestion meant a lot to me.

For many years, Tim helped me when it was my turn to serve dinner at Ascencia, Glendale’s homeless shelter. It was an activity that pleased his sisters in Chicago, who’d occasionally call me when they hadn’t heard from him — calls that often ended in a wish for his return home.

Tim, who is 71 years old now, was just released from the hospital into a skilled nursing facility to recover from a fall and what had become a festering wound on his leg. His sisters are still urging him to come home, but so far, he’s resisting.

I’m not sure where Wayne and Tim will end up, but their prospects as well as our own have me wishing for more housing options for seniors. We need more than Glendale’s recently announced 66-unit senior affordable-housing development, for which the city anticipates 10,000 to 20,000 applicants.

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We need more than age-segregated retirement homes and assisted-living facilities. How about multigenerational complexes where families and friends might live independently but in proximity, grandparents helping with young children, adult children available for their parents, aunts or uncles?

Granny flats and accessory dwelling units are a start. But we need to think more broadly. And we need more willingness to change and build.

For more information about Glendale’s latest senior development, visit liveatvistagrandecourt.com or call (818) 839-2075. Applications are due by Sept. 30.

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