In May 2021, 63-year-old Frederick Josefsen had been camping out in Seattle’s Capitol Hill for more than a year, waiting for a chance at housing. As an older adult experiencing homelessness, he finds comfort and acceptance in one senior center located in Seattle’s famed Pike Place Market.
The number of older American adults — defined as people aged 50 and above — at risk of experiencing homelessness has been on the rise over the last 10 years, according to a paper by the Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies. This steady growth can be attributed to the disproportionate increase in rent over the past several years. From 2001 to 2017, the average monthly income of an older adult increased by 6.6 percent while rent increased by 14 percent, according to the study.
Between the years of 2017 to 2019, 11 percent of older adult renters who found housing were forced to move due to eviction. This growth in rent has resulted in a 7 percent increase in the sheltered homeless population of older adults, with more than 30,000 new older adults left to find housing.
The homelessness trend amongst older adults has been especially visible within Seattle, with 22 percent of older adults experiencing homelessness according to a survey conducted by the city of Seattle. Today, Pike Market Senior Center continues to make it its mission to combat the risk of homelessness in Seattle by advocating for older adults experiencing life’s harder trials.
“People treat me differently when they find out I’m homeless,” Josefsen said. “That’s why I don’t go out of my way to let anybody know.”
Josefsen spent the last 12 years of his life chasing concerts as a stagehand across America. He’s a licensed aircraft mechanic who has played semi-professional hockey and goes fishing for halibut in the Gulf of Alaska every year. As a three-year member of the Pike Market Senior Center, Josefsen appreciates the welcoming community the center has created.
“You get to interact with people here,” Josefsen said. “I’m not just a nobody homeless guy who’s hungry. I’ve been out experiencing life — real life.”
Programming and Member Services Manager Zoe Freedman said that the senior center is often successful in creating an environment of nonjudgmental acceptance among its members. In the group’s bi-annual surveys of their older adults, many clients will write about how they feel judged and unwelcomed in other areas of their life. However, the senior center has become a place for them to feel truly accepted.
“Ageism in itself will marginalize you,” Freedman said, “But if you pile on your economic situation, housing problems or health issues, you really get kicked to the edges of society.”
Serving older adults encountering more of life’s challenges was always the intention of the Pike Market Senior Center, said Deputy Director Mason Lowe. When Pike Place Market was saved from demolition in the 1970s, the community that built the charter around the market mandated that there be a senior center, food bank, childcare and other vital community resources.
During the 1970s, many older adults experiencing economic challenges lived near the market. As a result, Pike Market Senior Center was built in support of the low-income, older adult population. Today, the center continues to offer a meals program and traditional senior center activities, such as exercise, yoga and dancing, at no cost.
In the year 2020, Pike Market Senior Center served more than 1,000 older adult clients. Of these clients, 39 percent were experiencing homelessness and 92 percent were low-income according to guidelines set by the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development.
“What makes us especially different from other senior centers is that we have a really robust social services program,” Lowe said. “We have five or six social workers on staff that can help homeless seniors, seniors with legal or immigration problems...or seniors transitioning into apartment living.”
In 2020, Pike Market Senior Center has handled more than 5,000 older adult social work cases. Since 2016, their program has housed more than 100 older adults experiencing homelessness.
The senior center helped 65-year-old Sandrina Day find housing specifically for people with disabilities. Day was 59 years old when she was found in her apartment suffering from an aneurysm. After recovering from a coma, Day spent two years in rehabilitation, relearning how to walk and speak.
“The center was a lifesaver,” Day said. “I don’t know how I would have a place to live without them.”
The senior center’s social workers were able to secure housing for Day within the same building where the center is located. Finding housing within Pike Place, known for its ease of transportation, was important to Day, and being close to the market has brought her lots of joy.
“I love being surrounded by human beings,” Day said. “I like the flowers and the fruits, the ability to take a walk and go to the ferries. It’s vital to life to be around human beings, especially as we get older.”
For 67-year-old Adnan Tuncel, the senior center has been helpful in delivering a rich, social atmosphere.
“Pike Place Market makes me feel like I’m always with other people,” Tuncel said. “It makes me feel less lonely and more together with a community.”
Tuncel was 18 years old when he immigrated from Istanbul, Turkey, to Ithaca, New York. A determined and talented student, he studied electrical engineering at Cornell University and finished with both a bachelor’s and master’s degree.
His life took a turn when he was diagnosed with schizophrenia in his thirties. Hospitalized at least 20 times, Tuncel lost his job and housing.
When he moved to Seattle at the age of 47, Tuncel found housing and began seeking treatment at Harborview Medical Center. Today, he spends his time at the senior center for a place of relief.
“I’ve been taking medications for about 20 years, and this place is helpful,” Tuncel said. “When I’m alone, I ruminate too much about my life...why am I mentally ill? But when I’m here, I just get to enjoy the community atmosphere with other older people here.”
From Tuncel’s experience with schizophrenia to Day’s struggle in finding housing, all the way to Josefson’s trials with homelessness, countless older adults have been able to find a second home at the Pike Market Senior Center. In a world that is quick to overlook the struggles of older adults and homeless people, the Pike Market Senior Center provides a safe haven for those feeling unmoored and in need of a truly welcoming community.
Sarah Goh covers the unexpected and overlooked in people and communities.
Read more of the Nov. 17-23, 2021 issue.