SARAH’S STORY: The Mental Health Challenges of Unhoused Seniors

Fresh Outlook Foundation

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By Carole Fawcett 

Our expectations can sometimes trip us up. Sitting across from me was Sarah (not her real name), a petite and feisty senior with her nails and hair done and make-up on. While looking like a fashionista, she’d actually been homeless for 14 months and had lived on and off in her car for most of that time. At the time of the interview, she was temporarily living in a motel.

She explained, “I expired everything ─ credit cards, savings, friends, and family.”

Now Sarah believes “seniors are a forgotten group. They are not taken with the same seriousness as younger people. We have become invisible.”


“I fight like crazy for me.”

Sarah grew up on military bases across Canada and says that “growing up this way, having to move a lot, made me tough, because you have to be strong to constantly leave friends. It’s difficult because you have to always try to fit in and make new friends. Your whole life is spent adapting to different situations.”

“I fight like crazy for me,” said Sarah. “Sure, I had moments of feeling depressed, but I don’t allow depression to overtake my thinking. I do not allow these feelings to be absorbed and tell myself to hang on, because I’m worth saving and I don’t search for validation from others ─ ever.”

But, despite her resilience and positive attitude, Sarah felt she was heading toward an unknown destiny. She was not aware of where she could go for help. “I was in shock and traumatized by the experience, not knowing what the future would bring."

Trauma can and does shut down the brain, releasing stress hormones that can cause fight, flight, or freeze reactions. It can impact cognition and decision-making can become distorted. It frequently triggers addiction issues, as traumatized people look to self-soothing with alcohol or drugs to numb the pain.


Trying to Survive

Sarah tried many ways to survive ─ house sitting, couch surfing, and a transition house for a short time. At the beginning of 2023, her driver’s license had expired and that was followed by her car not working. She had no money, no water, and no food. She said she nearly froze to death because she could not start her car every two hours for heat. She was exhausted and drained by this experience.

When asked how she kept warm at that point, she said she huddled in her quilt and in the morning went into a mall to warm up. Two days before her pensions were deposited, she said a very nice person in the mall gave her $20 for coffee and something to eat. “People are so kind at times and I’m very grateful.”

During this time Sarah used restaurants and mall restrooms to keep herself clean and tidy. “Some of the places knew my circumstances and knew I wouldn’t leave a big mess for them to clean up.” She added that “grooming is crucial to how you feel. I went through tons of wipes and creams so my skin wouldn’t break down.

“Living in my car put my body through hell. I kept my car clean, because it was my temporary (I hoped) home and I found I had to be very organized, so I knew where everything was.”

Working on keeping herself and the car interior clean, as well as moving around from parking lot to parking lot, kept her busy each day. She also read and did crosswords. With no radio in her car, she had no media for more than four months and, therefore, wasn’t sure what was going on in the world.

When asked how she managed to keep going, despite her circumstances, she said, “I don’t give up and I’m thankful for every day I have. I get my tenacity and resilience from my mother.”

Eventually, she was put in touch with a local organization due to the kindness of a helpful soul in the community. As of this writing, they’d found her a motel room where can stay for two months. They are also working on finding her a more permanent housing solution.


Sharing Lessons Learned

As a senior, I was in awe of Sarah’s courage and tenacity in coping as she shared her story with me. She said, “Well, I figure I’ve got two choices. I can be positive, or I can be negative. I work at being positive, because being negative will only create more problems and I already have enough of them.”

I also saw how easily a senior could slide down into crushing circumstances and deep depression. Canada is in a housing crisis, and a lot of us who are retired simply cannot afford the high rents. For those who only have OAS, CPP, and GIS, life can be tenuous if something unexpected happens that leads to homelessness. Pensions need to be increased, safe housing needs to be made more readily available, and respect must be given to seniors and others who live in their cars or on the street. Some have suggested accessible tiny houses as temporary solutions.

Seniors have become invisible in our society by the fact they are allowed to live in poverty. Sarah suggests having mature counsellors available to work with seniors because they “get it.”

Carole Fawcett is a retired counsellor and clinical hypnotherapist. She has written for newspapers and magazines for the past 14 years.  



Seniors | The Homeless Hub

Homelessness in Canada | The Canadian Encyclopedia

Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness

Office of Seniors Advocate (B.C.)

Mental Health Commission of Canada

About Reaching Home: Canada’s Homelessness Strategy


Discussion Questions
  1. Has your view of homelessness changed after reading Sarah’s story?
  2. How do you think you would cope if you became homeless?
  3. Do you think Sarah’s upbringing and moving a lot as a child helped her to cope with her situation?
  4. Can you understand how trauma can impact someone in Sarah’s situation?
  5. How do you think you could help someone like Sarah?
  6. What could society do to help seniors who do not have a safe place to live?
  7. Do you think tiny homes might be the answer?
  8. Do you think free counselling might help seniors if they live in poverty or are homeless?
  9. Do you think co-habitation might be the answer (e.g., living with another senior)?
  10. How would you be willing to help or advocate for unhoused seniors?
  11. How could we use Senior Centres to help homeless seniors?
  12. Is there a person or particular group of people who would benefit from you sharing this story with them?

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Number of Unhoused Seniors Growing

Stats Canada reports that more than 235,000 people in Canada experience homelessness in any given year, and up to 35,000 people experience homelessness on any given night.

The Canadian Encyclopedia states that, “People experiencing homelessness in Canada are quite diverse in terms of age, gender, and ethno-racial background. However, some groups are more at risk of becoming homeless, including single adult men, people dealing with mental health issues or addictions, women with children fleeing violence, and Indigenous people. There is also an assumption that homelessness is an urban phenomenon. In fact, homelessness also exists in rural areas and on reservations, even if it is less visible than it is in cities.”

“Homelessness can encompass a range of circumstances, including living on the streets or in places not meant for habitation; staying in overnight or emergency shelters; living temporarily as a “hidden” homeless person with friends, family or strangers, or in motels, hostels or rooming houses; and residing in precarious or inadequate housing,” reports Statistics Canada.


A British Columbia Example

Adults between the ages of 25-49 make up 52 per cent of those experiencing homelessness in Canada. While seniors (65 years and older) make up a small percentage of the unhoused (less than four percent of shelter users), seniors and older adults (50-64) are also the only groups whose shelter usage has increased over the past decade. And anecdotally, people who service unhoused populations are seeing increasing numbers of seniors.

The Homelessness Services Association of BC (HSABC) did a count in 2021 in a small BC town, that showed seniors (55+) who were homeless represented 11 percent of the 224 people they counted.   Interestingly, 11 percent also sheltered in their car on the night of the HSABC count, which translates to 24 people sleeping in their vehicles.

“Although several data sources exist,” reports Statistics Canada, “some challenges are inherent to the homeless population and make data collection difficult. First, homeless people rarely have a fixed address, therefore are difficult to count and are often outside the scope of surveys. This also makes them difficult to identify in administrative data.

Second, stigma and prejudice towards people experiencing homelessness can hinder self-identification. Third, given the transitional nature of homelessness, it is difficult to observe/count each individual at the moment they are experiencing homelessness. Finally, while field collection can represent a solution, it often remains difficult and is limited to a few communities.”


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