Guitar Whitfield, 70, spent much of his life at sea as a merchant marine and a musician on the side. When he returned to Oakland to visit family for the holidays a couple of years ago, he found himself homeless. His brother Bennie brought him to St. Mary’s Center, a nonprofit that provides a range of services, including case management and winter shelter for homeless seniors.

Whitfield is a tall, lean black man with an easy smile and a friendly greeting for the seniors and staff who pass by in the courtyard of St. Mary’s. “[St. Mary’s] took me in, took care of my transportation, showed me how to save money,” he recalled.

St. Mary's staff member Alita Manuel and volunteer Guitar Whitfield prepare healthy lunches for seniors. Photo by Laura McCamy

St. Mary’s staff member Alita Manuel and volunteer Guitar Whitfield prepare healthy lunches for seniors. Photo by Laura McCamy

The nonprofit was able to connect Whitfield with a spot in a brand new affordable housing building, Merritt Crossing, and he spent only four months homeless. Now, he comes back to help plate the hot lunch the center serves six days a week (at the cost of $1) or helping out wherever he is needed.

“I advocate, I work in the kitchen and I play music,” he says. “I come here to the center five days a week.”

Huge disinvestment in affordable housing

“Since the mid-1980s, the investment in affordable housing has gone down,” said Carol Johnson, executive director of St. Mary’s Center. “There’s a really dramatic shift.”

The defunding of affordable housing has become even more dramatic in recent years. “The primary source of financing for affordable senior housing has been cut back almost every year, to a point where very few get built every year,” said Joshua Simon, executive director of the nonprofit East Bay Asian Local Development Corporation (EBALDC).

“The irony is that, at the time when it was most affordable to build affordable housing, when land and construction costs were at all-time lows, that’s when redevelopment was ended by the state,” he added.

The City of Oakland received an average of $27 million in set-aside redevelopment funds for the construction and rehabilitation of affordable housing, according to Oakland Housing Development Manager Norma Thompson.

In the two years since redevelopment ended, the city has only been able to find $7 million in annual funding for those projects.

Working poor seniors end up homeless

Without access to affordable housing, low-income seniors are particularly vulnerable to homelessness. Johnson reports that upward of 40 percent of the population in Oakland’s year-round shelters are seniors.

Margot Kushel, a professor of medicine at UCSF based out of San Francisco General Hospital, noted that in the 1990s slightly more than 10 percent of the homeless population was over 50 (the cutoff that many researchers use to define seniors). By 2003, that number had risen to one in three. “What is true now is about half the homeless population is 50 and older,” she said.

“Several things are happening. One is that the cost of housing has skyrocketed and the wages haven’t kept up,” Kushel said. “I think it’s important that people understand these changes have a big impact on people’s lives.”

Kushel leads a team conducting a study of 350 homeless seniors, aged 50 and older. She said preliminary results show that among the study’s sample group, 43 percent had been housed until recently.

“Something happened to them late in life,” she said. “It’s never one thing. It’s often complicated. Someone loses a job. A spouse dies. They lose the family home after a parent dies.”

Kushel added, “It’s easy to be a doctor or a lawyer or a journalist in your 50s or 60s or 70s; it’s a lot harder to be an unskilled laborer.” She noted that a bad back or an injury could end the career of a low-wage worker early, with devastating consequences. “Many of these are the people who have been the janitors, who have been stocking the shelves.”

She recalled one man who lost his job after working his whole life. He had never been homeless before. As he scrambled to find work, he refused to stay at St. Mary’s shelter because he wanted to be available to work a night job. The streets took their toll and he ended up in the hospital before he was finally persuaded to stay in the shelter.

Health challenges multiply without shelter

A disturbing trend, Kushel noted, is among the younger seniors her program treats (aged 50 to 55). “We see incredibly high rates of … the age-associated conditions that we worry about in older people.”

Although many researchers place anyone older than 50 in the senior category, funding restrictions don’t allow senior-serving organizations like St. Mary’s Center to provide services to anyone under 55.

“The folks who’ve been homeless their whole lives are also suffering horribly, and they need lots of help,” Kushel said.

“One of the other things that we found that was maybe surprising or encouraging: our participants for the most part have family in the Bay Area,” said Kushel. Almost two-thirds of the cohort was raised in the Bay Area, and 98 percent were born in the U.S.

When asked for someone who would know where they were, 81 percent were able to provide contact information. “A huge percentage of people had places… that they attended regularly,” she said. “There are a lot of people who care about them. These are not people who were disconnected from the community.” Time on the streets can lead to isolation, however. “Those connections erode when people are homeless,” said Kushel.

Kushel’s research has found that one barrier to becoming rehoused is that a quarter to a third of homeless seniors have significant cognitive impairment. This makes it difficult to complete complex tasks with multiple steps, such as showing up at the right time to get a shelter bed or finishing all the steps to apply for permanent housing.

When people don’t show up for self-help, it doesn’t mean that they don’t want services, she said, but “they may have enough impairment that it may be very difficult for them to follow through on the instructions you just gave them.”

“African Americans are really disproportionately affected by homelessness,” she said. Almost 80 percent of the participants in Kushel’s study are African American.  “That’s the other really … damning statistic.”

Across the street from St. Mary's, homelessness and drug problems persist in St. Andrew's plaza. Photo by Laura McCamy

Across the street from St. Mary’s, homelessness and drug problems persist in St. Andrew’s plaza. Photo by Laura McCamy

Lack of political will

“Are we missing opportunities to intervene? Is it getting too hard to intervene because housing is so expensive?”

– Margot Kushel, UCSF professor of medicine and researcher

“Our folks can’t even find shelter beds, forget about a place to live,” Kushel said. “You can’t even get on a wait list.” Since her team started recruiting homeless seniors for the study in July of 2013, about 15 percent have become rehoused. “We’ll follow them over time to see if it stuck or not,” she said.

When someone from the study finds housing, Kushel said they are “unrecognizable.” “They look so different and so much better,” she said. “All their health measures get so much better when they are housed.”

“We need to also think about the strengths [of homeless seniors] and what they can do as opposed to always focusing on their challenges,” she said.

“When I came here, I had to humble myself,” Guitar Whitfield said. “I explained to [the counselors at St. Mary’s] that my homelessness was an opportunity to come out of my lush life,” including late night gigs and drinking too much.

Johnson wants more seniors to have the same opportunity as Whitfield. She believes that the shortage of affordable housing is not insoluble, but it is intractable. “It’s not going to go away until there’s a major federal policy shift,” she said. “We have to be determined to house people and, at this point, it seems like we don’t care.”

“We are letting older people live on the streets,” Kushel said. “We have changed our policies. That’s the reality of what we are doing.”

Guitar Whitfield and Jack Johnson at St. Mary's Center. Photo by Laura McCamy

Guitar Whitfield and Jack Johnson at St. Mary’s Center. Photo by Laura McCamy



 Laura McCamy wrote this article with support from the Journalists in Aging Fellows Program of the Gerontological Society of America and New America Media, sponsored by AARP.  This story is part of a series on the effect of gentrification on seniors in Oakland.

5 Responses

  1. OaklandNative

    Thanks again Ms. McCamy.

    These stories show how gentrification exploits the break down of Oakland’s African American families.

    When I was growing up, it was considered a shame to send one’s parents to an “old folks home,” etc. In fact, a Gambian friend of mine once criticized American culture for not valuing or taking care of its seniors. This story, like the other ones, have shown how Oakland has lost its soul.

    Our City officials should work on programs that encourage families to take care of their seniors.

    • Laura McCamy

      Great comment, Oakland Native. One issue that came up, especially in talking to Chinese elders, was that seniors worried about being a burden to their children. If the younger family members are low wage workers, caring for seniors can be a financial burden that’s hard to bear. Giving the whole family more support is a great way to help seniors age in place rather than being displaced.

      • OaklandNative

        That’s a good point to include in the discussion of ways we need to change Oakland.

        I also think we have forgotten the special role that seniors bring to Oakland–wisdom, history, connection, etc. One of the things my friends and I say is “I would hate to be young again.” Been there, done that.

  2. Marty Price

    Wonderful article, particularly poignant to see Jack Johnson in that last picture. When I first met him he was an active working guy in Local 510, Sign, display workers union, doing trade show exhibits. Unfortunately the pension paln came to late for him to get areal benefit, and what you stated in the article is so true. Men and women in the trades not just unskilled work have a heavy toll taken on their bodies carrying tools over the years. This man was at one time a former gymnast who could do wonderful things, but now has a cane and problems getting around. So I know that I am lucky that I went fulltime inot teaching in the mid 80’s and only did the union job in the summer. Over the years I saw my peers like Jack, backs out, knees gone, you name it. We have to do better as a society, but there seems no will to do so. Thanks again for this piece

  3. Sonny Le

    Dear Laura,

    Thanks for this enlightening series, helping to shine a light on these often hidden issues in our beloved city. Though not a native, I’ve lived in Oakland for 33 years, survived 5 mayors, and many trials & tribulations. I shared a bit about it here on Oakland Local. Thanks, Susan.

    I also appreciate the comments from OaklandNative, but would like to bring up something that has shocked many Asian Americans. It busts a rather entrenched stereotype or two. African Americans seem to be holding it together better than other ethnic groups when it comes to taking care of the elderly in the family. Asian Americans fare worse. I also know this from experience. I work with many elderly Vietnamese immigrants who’ve been estranged from their children & grandchildren.

    “Among African Americans, 65 percent are more likely to become primary caregivers compared with Latinos (63 percent), whites (53 percent) or Asian Americans (48 percent), according to the caregiving study.”

    Again, thanks for shining a light on Oakland, Laura.

    Sonny Le


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