Melissa Marts (right) with volunteer Diane Nichols at the Pikes Peak Area Agency on Aging.

Melissa Marts had been on the job two days when her office phone started ringing off the hook with elderly clients growing increasingly desperate in their search for a place to live.

“It is so hard for folks who have smaller incomes to find a place to live,” said Marts, who joined the Pikes Peak Area Agency on Aging last March as program development administrator.

That holds especially true for those 65 and older — and with Colorado Springs staring down a projected population explosion that could bring more than 400,000 new residents by 2050, senior services agencies are turning to novel solutions to ease the housing crunch for their more vulnerable residents.

Silver Key Senior Services, a Springs nonprofit that provides short-term case management, guardianship, food programs and transportation services for elderly clients, is currently seeking funds from the Colorado Housing and Finance Authority’s 9 percent Low Income Housing Tax Credit program to develop its own affordable senior housing complex.

However, the project’s timeline is anyone’s guess, said Derek Wilson, Silver Key’s director of development and donor relations.

“The challenge has been the state,” Wilson said. “As soon as we get the proper approvals, we’re shovel ready.”

- Advertisement -

The 71-unit complex will be built on land adjacent to Silver Key’s current campus on South Murray Boulevard, and will house 150 to 180 people at prices ranging from 30 to 50 percent of the area’s median rental rates, Wilson said.

“A property manager will work with us. We’re not in the business of doing that side,” he said. “We’ll just reap the benefit of what comes in. Everything we make is going back into serving people.”

Still, Wilson was emphatic that this project is not an immediate solution.

“It’s not like it’s imminent,” he said. “It could be a year or two years before we get what we need for it.”

COSTS OF AGING

Silver Key Senior Services saw about 100 client referrals from August to October, Wilson said. About one person a day was coming in with housing-related needs, he said.

“Housing issues have really become the No. 1 challenge for our seniors, particularly in terms of the dollars that we have to expend to help,” Wilson said.

Of Silver Key’s client referrals, 60 percent made less than $17,000 a year, or $1,425 a month.

“The average rent in town is about $1,200 a month,” Wilson said. “Everything they would get on a fixed income would go toward housing. What’s left over for food?

“Seniors are the largest-growing population of newly homeless people due to being priced out of the market,” he said. “Many seniors coming to us for assistance are coming because their rent is going up $100 to $300 a month, or their landlord is looking for a younger, hipper crowd. … The things that are good for our community, to those seniors that are at risk, it’s a detriment.”

A single person 65 years or older and in good health will need $1,982 a month in order to live in El Paso County, according to the Elder Index, which is managed by the University of Massachusetts.

Factoring in costs of health care, food, transportation and other miscellaneous expenses, that figure allots only $833 for housing.

“If you are that typical person with Social Security, you’re not going to make  that $1,900 that’s needed, let alone come even close to paying the average of $833,” Marts said.

LACK OF OPTIONS

Many seniors receiving Social Security or other benefits will not qualify for rapid re-housing programs, Marts said. When this happens, they often turn to public housing options — but those facilities typically have wait lists ranging from three to five years.

“Even if they think they’re going to be able to move tomorrow, the chances of getting into one of those places is slim to none,” Marts said. “We tell them, ‘Put your name on every single one of those senior affordable apartment lists,’ but there’s really no place to go for them. … Folks are scrambling.”

This problem caught Alison Joucovsky’s attention while she was a geriatric social worker for Jewish Family Service in Denver. So in 2016, Joucovsky founded Sunshine Home Share Colorado, a nonprofit that connects applicants 55 years and older who have extra space in their homes with renters of all ages.

Thanks to a grant from the NextFifty Initiative — a Denver-based foundation dedicated to funding efforts that improve quality of life for older adults — the Pikes Peak Area Agency on Aging will team up with Sunshine Home Shares for one year.

“It took us three years [in Denver] before we really started to get substantial funding so we could have a staff and pay for accounting — all the things you need in an organization,” Joucovsky said. “I think having the [Area Agency on Aging] behind us in Colorado Springs puts us 75 steps ahead of where we were in Denver because they already have credibility.”

Senior housing and behavioral health are two of the top priorities outlined in the agency’s four-year plan, and Sunshine Home Share’s mission aligns with both, Marts said.

“With the opportunity to create a housing resource that also might help alleviate loneliness and social isolation, we’re hitting both of those things,” she said. “On the home provider piece of it, there are a lot of folks 65 and older who find it harder and harder to make ends meet … and on the other side, some of them might be able to afford their house and might be doing just fine, but they’re lonely and would embrace the idea of having someone live with them.”

HOW IT WORKS

To date, Sunshine Home Share has made 22 matches in the Denver area, “which doesn’t sound like a lot,” Joucovsky said, “but we’re really proud of it.

“When you think about the cost benefit to home sharing, you’re keeping people off Medicaid and out of nursing homes and assisted living. You’re helping people access in-home support services that they otherwise couldn’t pay for,” she said. “There is a huge cost benefit to home sharing.”

Home seekers and providers must submit an application to the Pikes Peak Area Agency on Aging office, where staffers will review it before calling for a phone screening. Next is scheduling an intake time, which is conducted at home providers’ residences and in the office for home seekers.

“That takes usually a couple of hours and it really is just getting to know them and helping us paint the picture of the person so that we can really look at who has possibilities for introduction,” Joucovsky said.

Once Sunshine Home Share has found a potential match, the nonprofit arranges a meeting between the two applicants — during which an employee is present to make sure they are asking the necessary questions. The applicants then have some time to mull over the process before deciding whether to exchange phone numbers and set up a second meeting.

“We let them bring in their family or a neighbor and spend time getting to know each other,” Joucovsky said.

The next step is drawing up a contract for a two-week trial living period. If that is successful, a move-in date is set.

“Before the person moves in, we go out and do the ‘living together’ contract, which is really all the nuts and bolts. … so when they move in, those expectations are really, really clear,” Joucovsky said. “We go out every quarter and do a home visit. They can always call us if they need us to come out and help negotiate, but usually the process is so thoughtful and so slow that by the time they actually move in together, they’re feeling pretty good about it.

“We really tell people, ‘This is not an ASAP program,’” she added. “There is no place for shortcuts in our process and there really is no way to do this faster if you are going to get it right. Our goal is to really do long-lasting matches.”

Half the nonprofit’s matches have been senior-to-senior, Joucovsky said, with the other half being Millennials and seniors.

“We tend to see [younger people] coming to us and they are social workers, teachers, nurses, nonprofit professionals — they have this helping spirit and they’re like, ‘I could live with four or five people my own age, or I could live with an older person, save money and give back,’” Joucovsky said. “The older person is going, ‘I am helping this younger person on their path and saving money for their next journey.’ It really has a full-circle, positive effect on everybody.”

A full-time staffer will start in Colorado Springs in February, Joucovsky said. The goal is for Sunshine Home Shares to find other funding options next year, allowing the organization to maintain a presence in the Pikes Peak region but financially separate from the agency, Marts said.

“We don’t want to apply again with Next50,” Marts said. “We want Sunshine to branch out and grow on their own.”