As a trauma psychologist and social worker, we applaud the national spotlight on housing affordability. Yet, that’s only part of the conversation we need to have to develop effective housing solutions. Now we need to talk about the role that abuse and exploitation play in housing instability, from adolescence to adulthood — and as our research team recently discovered, even into older adulthood.
The vast majority of youth experiencing homelessness say they left home to escape child abuse. This is especially true for LGBTQ youth who are more likely to be abused and kicked out of their homes than their peers. Once on the streets, sexual and physical victimization is common. Victimization on the streets then contributes to serious and costly health problems, such as depression, PTSD, and substance abuse.
In adulthood, domestic violence drives housing instability and homelessness among women and their children. Women fleeing their abusers may spend time in shelters or move multiple times. Women may also face tremendous economic instability when leaving abusers, making it difficult to get basic needs met, including finding and keeping housing.
Among older adults, our team’s new research points out risks that a lack of affordable housing is poised to create a perfect storm that leads to the exploitation of older adults. Nationally, concerns for affordability and accessibility of housing for older adults is only increasing. Plus, older adults who experience homelessness also face physical and sexual victimization that could be reduced by reentering housing. Housing insecurity is a pressing issue for older adults, and it becomes more complicated by the potential risk for victimization within one’s own home.
…we have to grapple with the ways that abuse and exploitation create housing instability.
Our team reviewed police reports of abuse and exploitation of more than 500 older adults. Nearly one in ten of the police reports described situations where another person – most often a family member – was exploiting an older adult’s residence in ways that put the older adult’s housing at risk.
What we read in police reports lined up with what practitioners working with older adults to prevent and respond to elder abuse also noticed. To get a sense of these cases, imagine an adult daughter living in her aging mother’s apartment in violation of the terms of the lease, which says only the mother can live there. By violating the lease, the older adult risks eviction. That housing instability can put their psychological and physical wellbeing at risk. Once evicted, the older adult will face housing shortages. She might find herself homeless, living out of a car or moving from shelter to shelter, making it difficult or impossible to access assistive medical devises. Or imagine an adult grandchild who sells drugs out of his grandfather’s living room. The grandchild stops people from coming over to the house, including the person the grandfather called to repair the roof. Unaddressed, that small leak grows into a chronic moisture problem that affects the older adult’s health.
Researchers have long recognized that people providing care for older adults may feel entitled to their resources, which can lead to exploitation. The current shortage of affordable housing in many communities may increase the likelihood that family members and other trusted adults exploit access to older adults’ residences.
From adolescence to the older adult years, abuse and exploitation are tangled up with housing issues. Solutions to the national housing crisis cannot focus on affordability alone. Instead, we have to grapple with the ways that abuse and exploitation create housing instability. Effective housing policies have to also work to decrease child abuse and domestic violence. At the same time, housing conditions can affect risk for victimization, as seen among youth living on the streets. There are hints that older adults maybe the next group to fall victim to exploitation because of the housing crisis. We need policies that address affordability and availability of housing for all Americans across the life span at the same time as abuse and exploitation if we are to end the housing crisis in America.
Our research on older adults was supported by the National Institute of Justice [Grant #2013-MU-CX-0032]. The views expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views or the official position of the National Institute of Justice or any other organization. Thank you to the Denver Forensic Collaborative for At-Risk Adults for their collaboration to make research with older adults possible, particularly Denver City Attorney’s Office (especially Linda Loflin Pettit), Denver District Attorney’s Office (especially Maro Casparian), Denver Human Services-Adult Protective Services, and Denver Police Department; and the Traumatic Stress Studies Group.