San Jose officials celebrated the grand opening of a new affordable housing complex on Wednesday. But the formerly homeless residents all have something in common - they're all senior citizens, part of the disturbing rise of elderly people living on the streets.
When the weather turns wet and nasty, it's good to have a warm place to call home. And that's what the shiny, new "Villas at 4th Street" is offering to 94 formerly homeless seniors. But even as they cut the ceremonial ribbon, Mayor Matt Mahan had a warning.
"We have a long way to go. We have 4,500 people living in tents and vehicles. And the fear, the uncertainty, the danger of being out on the streets," he said.
The project was developed by People Assisting The Homeless, or PATH. The group's CEO, Jennifer Hark Dietz, said the residents at the complex bust the myth that people are homeless because they did something wrong.
"And when we start putting a real face to it, I think we'll all be able to look at our own community and know that there are people at risk," said Hark Dietz.
Patti Fradenburg was one of them. She was turned out of a home 5 years ago when her sister-in-law became ill. She's lived in shelters and motels since, but always with the fear that she could, at age 70, end up on the streets.
"I'm looking at bushes, going, 'Well, that might be ok...that might be ok,'" said Patti. "And here's my thought....this old lady wouldn't have made it. I would NOT have made it out there on the street. I wouldn't have. I'm too vulnerable."
But now, her fears are gone. The brand new one-bedroom apartment is hers for as long as she wants, for about $200 per month. It's been a long journey, and Patti recalled her feeling about homeless people before she became one herself.
"I remember telling my grandkids, 'you never look down on these people, please, because you don't know their story," she said. "You don't know how they ended up on the street."
Seniors are the fastest growing sector of the unhoused population, simply because their fixed incomes can't keep pace with the cost of housing.
"That's the hardest part with our elders, because there's not a "get back on your feet." This is what they make now and it will be that way for 20 years," said Jennifer Loving, CEO of the housing nonprofit, Destination Home. "And so, if we're not creating housing that understands those conditions, we're going to be putting a lot of people into the streets."
Patti understands how lucky she is to avoid that. And after all the uncertainty of the last 5 years, she now loves to stand out on her balcony, watch the sunset, and reflect on what it means to have a home.
"I mean, you have your own space, your own shower, your own bathroom. You can shut your bedroom door," she said. "It's just having been given back that bit of dignity and self-worth, you know? It's freeing."
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