Housing costs hit Bend seniors
BEND — Sally Lybarger was in her late 70s when she was forced to live in her car because she couldn't afford to go anywhere else.
After working as a nurse for about 40 years in Portland and Klamath Falls, Lybarger moved to Bend about 16 years ago to retire, she said. But eventually, she found herself facing increasing housing prices and lengthy wait times to get into an affordable apartment.
"A lot of people are judgmental and they don't understand the circumstances people go through," Lybarger said.
Yet Lybarger, 79, is one of hundreds of Bend seniors who struggle to make ends meet while facing rising housing and health care costs. Bend's population is getting older, and so, too, is its homeless population, outreach workers say.
"The most vulnerable population are elderly and disabled because they don't have any options to go and maybe pick up a part-time job," said Cody Standiford, community liaison for Central Oregon Veterans Outreach.
Nationwide, about 31 percent of individuals in homeless shelters were over 50 in 2014, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. That's a more than 34 percent increase since 2007, when they made up only about 23 percent of individuals in shelters.
Lybarger lived in her car for more than a year and a half while she waited to get into affordable housing, often spending her days in the Downtown Bend Public Library to keep out of harsh weather, she said. She even took in a roommate in her car — a middle-aged woman — who was living on the street, she said.
Finally, she got to the top of a waitlist and into the rent-controlled Quimby Street Apartments last November, Lybarger said. She lives off of $1,023 in Social Security each month, along with $16 in food stamps, she said.
It can take over a year to get into affordable senior housing, while some complexes aren't even taking applications because waitlists are so long, said Melissa Melby, an information specialist at the Central Oregon Council on Aging.
Census data show the number of renters paying more than $700 a month grew more than 45 percent between 2009 and 2014. Bend's elderly residents who live off of fixed incomes are hard-pressed to find affordable housing when rental prices go up.
Meanwhile, more than 21,700 Deschutes County residents — about 13 percent of the total population — received Social Security in 2014. That's more than a 20 percent increase since 2010, according to Census data. The average Social Security payment for a household was about $1,488 per month.
"I regularly get called about people being kind of basically forced out of their residences because their rents have increased so much that they're unable to live there anymore," said Melby of the Central Oregon Council on Aging.
Tom Kemper, who oversees Housing Works, which administers the HUD's housing choice voucher program in Central Oregon, said about 62 percent of voucher holders are elderly or disabled. Formerly known as section 8, the vouchers ensure households spend less than 30 to 40 percent of their income toward rent.
In the past three years, the number of seniors who applied to get on the waitlist for vouchers in Bend increased 108 percent, from 61 in 2013 to 127 in 2016, according to Housing Works data.
Bend City Councilor Nathan Boddie, who's also a physician at Mosaic Medical, a nonprofit medical group in Central Oregon, said a growing number of seniors and baby boomers are coming in sicker and poorer than ever before. More and more often, his patients are forced to choose between health bills and housing costs and cut corners on nutrition to afford expensive medications and housing, he said.
"People can't be as healthy as they should when they're struggling with an unsafe place to stay or an unstable living situation," Boddie said.
Federal data show personal health care spending for those 65 and older was $18,424 in 2010, about three times higher than spending for a working-age person. Meanwhile, Medicare, the health care program for people over 65 and people with disabilities, doesn't cover long-term care facilities that aren't associated with a medical stay.
"They're in a fragile position," Boddie said. "They're just less adaptable."
Standiford, of Central Oregon Veterans Outreach, said encouraging seniors and their family members to reach out to agencies such as NeighborImpact and the Central Oregon Council on Aging for before a crisis happens is critical to prevent people from living on the streets. Programs including rental assistance and assistance paying utility bills can help Bend's elderly population stay in their homes if they're struggling financially.
"Reach out if they need help," Standiford said. "Don't wait."