Elderly and Homeless: America’s Next Housing Crisis

Mark Fong knew that if he didn’t pay up front, he wouldn’t be able to keep his room for another night. It was late May in Phoenix, when the rising temperatures and the end of a school year like none other ushered in the unofficial start of summer. Fong, who is 60, had been staying at motels for several weeks, after an arrangement that allowed him to live rent-free in exchange for cooking and cleaning fell through. He was out of work and out of luck: Though he filed for unemployment at the start of the month, he had yet to receive any money, and he had no money left.

He squeezed what he owned into a backpack and hopped on a bus. He couldn’t pay for the ride, so he showed the driver an old ticket he had in his wallet; the driver waved him in. He got off outside an extended-stay hotel and settled on the bus-stop bench for the night.

A slide into depression a decade ago triggered Fong’s downward spiral, derailing a career in the hospitality industry and destroying a long relationship with a partner with whom he had traveled the world. He went to Arizona for a fresh start, to care for a house his sister owned in Goodyear, a suburb of Phoenix — “a change of altitude for a change in attitude,” he remembers her telling him, persuading him to leave the beaches of South Florida and his troubles behind. It didn’t work.

He lived off his savings and, later, a modest inheritance he received after his father’s death. He managed a convenience store and then drove for Uber full time for more than a year, pushing himself even as he felt his body failing him. He spent six weeks at the hospital in 2019 after a doctor installed a pacemaker near his left collarbone, bringing his sputtering heart back into rhythm. He got a job making just above the minimum wage of $12 an hour as a cashier at a grocery store, but he quit in January when he got sick again following a punishing holiday shopping season. After Ducey imposed a stay-at-home order in Arizona to contain the spread of the coronavirus, Fong saw an opportunity and applied for a job as a personal shopper at Walmart. His doctor advised against it, but Fong figured that a job collecting items that clients had ordered online, like tomatoes and Cap’n Crunch cereal, flour tortillas and Pine-Sol, might be good for him. “A heart is a muscle,” he says. “You need to exercise it. I thought having a job that keeps me moving on my feet like that would be good for my heart.” On May 3, at the end of his third week at a job that he thought would carry him through the uncertainty of the pandemic, he was let go. He’s still not sure exactly why.

He immediately filed for unemployment, but he became confused and checked “no” when he should have answered “yes,” tying up his benefits under a paralyzing load of bureaucracy. At the Arizona Department of Economic Security, which manages safety-net programs in the state, the number of new unemployment claims reached almost 137,000 in May, up from about 16,000 in January. Fong and thousands of others flooded the agency’s phone lines, waiting hours to speak to someone. More than once, the online claim-filing system crashed, overwhelmed by the demand. By then, Fong had already run out of favors from his family and friends. In three weeks, he would run out of money.

That night at the bus stop, Fong collapsed into a fitful sleep, his heart strained by the punishing heat of summer in the desert. The next morning, he walked to the 13-acre Human Services Campus, a hub for services for homeless adults in Maricopa County, the most populous county in Arizona and the fastest-growing in the United States. As he approached the complex’s big iron gates, he felt as if a piece of him were dying: “All I could see were these tents on the sidewalk, all these homeless people, and I thought, I’m not — I’m not — this is not me.”

Central Arizona Shelter Services occupies the largest of the warehouselike buildings at the campus, all of them arranged around an Olympic-pool-size piece of artificial turf. Three years ago, Lisa Glow, the shelter’s newly appointed chief executive, stood outside the complex and scanned the long line of people vying for a bed. “Why are there so many in walkers?” she wondered. “And wheelchairs? And gray hair?” Inside the shelter, there wasn’t room for everyone who sought its refuge: On average, more than 100 people were turned away every week.

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