Barbra Armentrout, 68, cries when she looks at the growing stack of cardboard boxes in her garage.
Elderly population is rising at the state’s largest homeless shelter
89 homeless people 62 years and over
6 percent of shelter total
115 homeless people 62 years and over
8 percent of shelter total
131 homeless people 62 years and over
9 percent of shelter total
2016 (year to date)
207 homeless people 62 years and over
12.3 percent of shelter total
source: Institute for Human Services
The disabled senior has been distraught since her landlord’s children decided to sell the St. Louis Heights home where she has rented a downstairs apartment for seven years. It took more than 25 calls and 12 on-site visits before she found a new rental that would pass the requirements for her Section 8 housing subsidy.
“One owner wanted $1,400 for a 168-square-foot room. I looked at another unit that didn’t have a sink in the kitchen; they said I could wash dishes in the bathroom. I really thought I was going to be homeless,” said Armentrout, who will have to resign from the Diamond Head-Kapahulu-St. Louis Neighborhood Board because she couldn’t find an affordable rental in her district, where home prices and rents have soared.
Armentrout is not alone.
The frenetic price rise in Honolulu’s residential real estate market is pushing limited- and low-income seniors out of their homes, and real estate analyst Stephany Sofos said rents have increased 10 to 20 percent in the last three years while home sales have increased 10 to 25 percent. Rising values and gentrification have led owners to charge higher rents and list more properties. More leasehold owners are taking their assets back.
With fewer affordable options available, couples and families are competing with seniors for smaller, lower-priced units.
“In the 40 years that I’ve been in the real estate business, this is the craziest market that I’ve been in and that includes the Japanese bubble,” Sofos said. “Prices for home sales and rentals are climbing ridiculous amounts. Time on the market is getting shorter and shorter.”
Jump in caseloads
Hawaii seniors who own property have benefited from the robust market, but seniors squeezed out of their rentals are taxing social service agencies — some of which have seen caseloads nearly quadruple.
Caroline Hayashi, executive director of the Waikiki Community Center, said senior case management clients have increased more than 270 percent over the past several years — rising to more than 700 last year from 187 in 2013. She estimates 50 percent of the center’s case management calls involve housing, and others concerning finances or food insecurities involve circumstances that put housing at risk.
Armentrout, who suffers from a degenerative spine disease, said forced relocation adds to aging’s difficulties. Seniors like her who lack access to a computer or have health, mobility or transportation challenges end up behind other rental applicants. She also was overwhelmed by packing and the expenses of moving, including paying application fees that sometimes ran $25 a unit.
“I was supposed to leave July 1, but I’m still packing. The landlady is taking a daily fee out of my security deposit. I’m worried that I’ll be going to the next place without much money,” Armentrout said.
Waikiki Community Center is expanding case services, but Hayashi said additional workers haven’t been able to keep up with senior demand.
“We’ve grown from one part-time case worker to two. I’ve put another 32-hour-week case worker in the budget, but we will have to raise more funds to make that happen,” Hayashi said. “Demand for services is so great that our client load will grow with each case worker that we hire.”
It’s the same story at the Institute for Human Services, where the sheltered and unsheltered population of homeless clients age 62 and older has risen steadily, said Kimo Carvalho, IHS community relations director.
In 2013, 89 elderly homeless clients lived at the shelter, comprising 6 percent of its population, Carvalho said. So far in 2016, the number has grown to 207 elderly clients who made up 12.3 percent of the shelter’s population. Unsheltered elderly homeless populations are growing too, especially in places like Waikiki, where Carvalho said they have become the largest client group. Worse yet, lack of affordable housing means many middle-aged clients are on their way to becoming similar statistics.
“Without housing and support, many middle-aged clients will be homeless in their senior years when they have greater health concerns and typically fewer income sources,” Carvalho said.
Kent Miyasaki, housing information officer for the Hawaii Housing Finance & Development Corp., said the state has stepped up development of senior rental units, but there still are not enough to satisfy the projected affordable rental housing demand for elderly households. Miyasaki estimates that people over 60 will account for more than a quarter of the state’s population by 2030.
To keep up with this demand, Miyasaki said Honolulu alone would have to deliver 470 units annually for senior renters. Only 324 affordable senior rental units were delivered in Honolulu in 2014 and 76 in 2016, while 102 are scheduled for delivery by 2017, followed by another 387 in 2018.
Local developer Peter Savio said the elderly homeless population is proof that the government can’t “build its way out of the homeless crisis.”
Savio said affordable rentals are only stopgaps for the working class, who will encounter problems in retirement when their fixed income can’t keep up with rising rents and costs of living.
“Anyone who rents can’t afford to live in Hawaii when they retire unless they’ve really managed their money. Social Security may go up, but rents will go up more,” Savio said. “If you want stability, you have to own a piece of the pie. Rental housing only makes landlords richer and people poorer. The programs are all structured to build rental units, but they should require that the tenants get some of the value.”
Frances Suda, 85, regretted remaining a renter after getting a 45-day notice from her landlord last year.
“I preferred to rent so I could keep money in investments. But I didn’t know that the rents would go up so much,” Suda said. “I came to the Waikiki Community Center out of desperation.”
Suda said the center helped her locate another affordable rental — but it was $200 more than she had been paying. She has managed the expense, but knows many struggling seniors. “Some are sharing rooms to cut costs. I’ve met others who rely on tax refunds to get by,” she said.
Out on the streets
The most desperate cases are resulting in homelessness.
Thelma Suzuki, 90, was sleeping on a Kuhio Beach park bench until IHS outreach workers convinced her to seek shelter. Limited housing choices mean she will likely spend the rest of her life there.
Carvalho said older homeless seniors like Suzuki have fewer options because they are too fragile to live alone and lack support systems. Some housing programs offer limited stays, others require unpopular cost-sharing options.
Some seniors prefer the streets to adult foster and residential care homes that require them to relinquish most of their monthly income, Carvalho said. Those needing pain management sometimes choose to remain homeless and use illicit drugs, which are cheaper than doctor’s visits and prescriptions, he said.
“I don’t want to go back to any elderly care homes or foster homes. They were terrible,” said Suzuki, who has lived at the Iwilei shelter for a year and a half. “When I go there, I’m only allowed to keep $50 a month. That’s not enough freedom.”
Suzuki, who used to work as a seamstress at a shop near the old Waikiki Theater, remembers easier days when she lived with her family in Manoa Valley. Her living situation became precarious after her husband died and his children sold the home.
Homeless beach boy Clayton Gohier, 75, also remembers better days, when Waikiki was more affordable.
“On Sundays, Duke (Kahanamoku) used to buy us big cheeseburgers from the Outrigger Canoe Club,” Gohier said. “Waikiki is a very special place in my heart. I love people and I love teaching surfing and outrigger canoeing. If I hadn’t have gotten injured, I’d still be there.”
Gohier said he became homeless after cancer and a leg infection kept him from working seven-day weeks.
“If you miss one rental payment in Waikiki, it’s hard to catch up,” he said.
Gohier and his wife, Verina, became one of IHS’ success stories in January when they moved into the Hale Mauliola homeless shelter on Sand Island. More than six months later the couple are still in temporary quarters; however, IHS said it has a lead on a permanent apartment for the couple.
“I’m hoping for a brand-new start,” Gohier said. “When you are younger, you can fly to the moon and back. Getting older isn’t easy. If you don’t have a place to stay, it’s not comfortable when the sun goes down.”