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Housing, Health Care Leave Boulder County’s, Longmont’s Aging Community at Risk of Homelessness

December 22, 2018
Roberta and Paul Fjeld pose for a portrait in their apartment in Longmont on Friday. The Fjelds worked with the Inn Between after they lost their home due to medical bills and Paul being unable to work.

Having grown up on a farm in New Hampshire during the Great Depression, Ruby Kulpa was never one to shy away from hard work. In fact, she had a full-time job from the time she was 12 until she was 74, often working hard labor in factories or transporting goods via semitruck.

However, after a slew of health problems plagued much of her family, her savings are gone. Now, with her rent in Longmont increasing on the first of the year, she’s unsure if she will be able to afford to stay in her home while living on a fixed income, roughly half of which goes toward insurance and medication.

“I’ve worked my entire life and all I have to show for it is a 10-year-old car,” she said. “It’s a lot of stress on my part and asking for help after years of being self-sufficient is very hard.”

Having moved to Longmont in 2016 so she could be closer to her doctors after she was diagnosed with cancer for the third time, Kulpa immediately put her name on the waiting lists for all of the subsidized housing projects and affordable senior centers in the area, but demand is high and she’s not sure her name has moved any closer to the top of those lists.

“I don’t know what I’m going to do,” she said. “There are a lot of new places being built, but they’re all so expensive. I may have to file for bankruptcy.”

As the baby boomers retire and housing as well as health care costs continue to rise throughout the country, Kulpa’s story is becoming increasingly common — especially in Boulder County.

According to Homeless Solutions for Boulder County, of the roughly 2,000 people who were screened for homeless services, 5 percent of the county’s homeless population and nearly 6 percent of the homeless population in Longmont is older than 65. Another 17 percent of the population is between 50 and 64.

“We definitely have seen more elderly people coming to us for help,” said Edwina Salazar , the executive director of the OUR Center in Longmont. “We’re always told our later years are the golden years, but for many people that doesn’t happen. It becomes a time of more stress, risk and worry, not so much because of a loss of income, but because of health care costs.”

For Paul and Roberta Fjeld, 60 and 61, respectively, Paul’s chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, which was caused by being exposed to chemicals while working as a janitor, not only racked up large medical bills, but also took him out of the workforce.

With Paul’s disability check only a third of his previous salary and medical bills starting to mount, Roberta’s checks from substitute teaching weren’t able to make up the difference, so Paul and Roberta were forced to sell their home of 24 years and move into their camper.

“We were robbing Peter to pay Paul and ran through our savings trying to keep the house,” Roberta Fjeld said. “By 2016 the writing was on the wall and we reached out to Amy Payan at the Senior Center for help.”

Working with Payan, a community services manager at the Longmont Senior Center, and staff at the Inn Between, after seven months in their camper, Paul and Roberta were able to find temporary housing at one of Inn Between’s apartment complexes.

Just before their two-year lease with the Inn Between was up, they were given the opportunity to be the first people to move into Micah Homes, a new six-unit supportive housing complex built on land donated by the United Church of Christ in Longmont and run by the Inn Between.

“It’s changed our lives,” Roberta Fjeld said. “We’re basically starting over and this has allowed us to catch up on our bills, but more than anything it’s the security. When you reach this age you have to feel some sense of stability and security, otherwise you’re constantly worried, which can cause more health issues. We can’t say enough about these programs. People need to know that there are people out there who will help you if you swallow some pride and just ask.”

Along with outlets such as the OUR Center, the Longmont Senior Center, Homeless Outreach Providing Encouragement (HOPE) and the Inn Between, all of which provide sustenance and financial assistance to those at risk of or who are currently experiencing homelessness, Homeless Solutions for Boulder County, a conglomerate of several homeless services organizations in the area, has formed a working group to explore potential solutions to the aging homeless population.

“We recognize that this is likely to be a growing problem and we want to see what we can do to get ahead of it and what systems we want to bring into the process to make sure we can address those needs as they occur,” said Jim Adams-Berger, the manager for strategic initiatives for Boulder County Community Services and Homeless Solutions for Boulder County.

Of the 2,000 people screened during its first year of existence, Homeless Solutions for Boulder County successfully helped 400 individuals exit the homeless services system, 188 of which found their own housing, 145 were reunified with support systems and 50 were referred to other programs such as Ready to Work, the Inn Between, or substance abuse treatment.

While the ultimate goal of Homeless Solutions for Boulder County is to find housing for those experiencing homelessness, for those like Ruby who need shelter right now, HOPE also is working with its partners to provide year-round shelter in Longmont with storage and showers.

“HOPE operates a nightly navigation shelter with the short-term goal to keep Longmont warm and fed in the winter but with the long-term goal of moving people out of the shelter into stable employment and housing,” said Joseph Zanovitch , the executive director of HOPE. “When our clients know they have a safe, legal and secure place to sleep at night, they are more able to get up in the morning and meet their goals -- whether that is finding a job, housing or making it to an important appointment.”

John Spina: 303-473-1389, jspina@times-call.com or twitter.com/jsspina24

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