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Surging rents price some low-income seniors out of homes

Vero Beach’s fixed-income elderly are, in growing numbers, being priced out of their homes in the white-hot rental market, with some lower-income seniors even joining the ranks of the homeless.

With local housing costs spiraling, vulnerable seniors on fixed incomes are finding it hard to keep up with inflation.

Lundy Fields, president and CEO of the Visiting Nurse Association of the Treasure Coast, describes the situation facing some of his agency’s clients as “a crisis.”

“Investors purchase properties, rents go up, seniors are forced out,” he said of clients with chronic health conditions, or recent hospitalization requiring skilled nursing care, who suddenly find themselves without a home. “Four, I believe, in the past month, all in their 70s, including two who have been living in their cars.”

Fields said the rent of one VNA client’s apartment soared from about $1,500 a month to $2,000.

The nonprofit VNA, which has provided home healthcare in Indian River County for 45 years, learned of this phenomenon during follow-up calls to patients whom they discovered had been forced out of their apartments.

Though the VNA doesn’t handle housing, staff worked to help elderly, homeless patients find temporary shelter.

One of these patients, a 73-year-old widow, said she had lived in Vista Royale more than 15 years, but that recently her rent was increased far above what she could afford, and she was evicted.

Friends were able to store some of her belongings, and allowed her stay with them for a few of nights, in violation of their own rental rules.

“After that, I slept in a bus at The Source,” she said.

Established in 1995, The Source is a local nonprofit drop-in outreach ministry “for the homeless and less fortunate” providing cold-weather shelter, meals, clothing, showers, and other basic items but not long-term housing.

The Source Dignity Bus has been retrofitted with 20 sleeping pods, lockers, four pet pods, luggage storage, and two toilets. When it is occupied, there is an overnight caretaker.

The goal, according to The Source, is to “provide safe, temporary overnight accommodation to those sleeping rough in Indian River County, to get people off the street and keep them safe and healthy until they can get back on their feet.”

The homeless widow, with the help of VNA staff, subsequently found temporary shelter at a local assisted living facility, which was able to “fit me in for three to four weeks.”

Finding herself in a frustrating Catch 22, the 73-year-old sought housing at local senior residences, but they would not even start the paperwork once they learned she’d been evicted from her previous home. With no family, her belongings temporarily stored with friends, and time running out on the current roof over her head, the end is not in sight.

From conversations with discharged patients, VNA said it would appear many tenants priced out of their apartments due to “exorbitant” rent hikes are seniors, and, while it is “apparently happening a lot in Vista Royale, there are definitely others in Indian River County.”

Another local nonprofit seeing elderly people in a similar predicament is Hope for Families Center, a shelter south of Vero Beach.

Executive Director Marty Mercado said his typical clients are young families, but recently they have seen grandparents with grandchildren who can’t find affordable housing, with rent exceeding their Social Security checks.

“We had one grandmother and her granddaughter that stayed for over six months at the shelter, looking for affordable housing; and currently we have grandparents with their grandchild that have been with Hope for Families Center for three months and can’t find anything affordable to rent,” she said.

When Hope for Families staff answer the phone, the person on the other end of the line will frequently be elderly, and homeless.

“The crisis is climbing. These residents feel helpless and not sure of what the next step is.

In the meantime, we let them live in the shelter as we explore options for housing solutions,” Mercado said.

Fields pleaded for action on this somewhat invisible, but serious problem. “We must let these people know this is a community that does care,” he said.

Photos by Joshua Kodis

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