Business & Economy

Number of homeless seniors rises in San Bernardino

Wilbert and Louise Perrera found a spot in an affordable housing development in San Bernardino after years of moving around, and living in a camper.
Wilbert and Louise Perrera found a spot in an affordable housing development in San Bernardino after years of moving around, and living in a camper.
Rina Palta, KPCC

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More and more senior citizens are becoming homeless in San Bernardino, as housing costs rise in the Inland Empire.

The latest homeless census, conducted in January, found that even as San Bernardino County's homeless population declined slightly since last year, the number of people 62 or over on the streets went up 11 percent, to 112.

"The sad thing is that many seniors have an inbred distaste for feeling like they need welfare," said Garry Madden, director of 211 San Bernardino County, a help line started by the United Way of the Inland Empire. "Many times it takes them to become very desperate before they'll ask for help."

The 211 line has also seen a sharp rise in the demand for affordable housing for seniors. Calls about housing for senior adults jumped 42 percent from 2013 to 2016.

"We don't have a lot of affordable housing resources unless you get out into the desert areas where it's more rural," said Gary Madden, director of 211 San Bernardino County. "If you want to go to Barstow or Yucca Valley, you can find some housing," 

The county's vacancy rate for units is currently 2 percent, similar to the City of L.A.'s. 

As housing costs have put pressure on Southern California's coastal areas, they've pushed people further and further into the desert in search of something affordable, he said. 

That's what happened to Louise and Wilbert Perrera. 

The couple met in Los Angeles in the 1960's when Wilbert was trying to make it as a singer. Louise wasn't interested in him, but he won her over with time.

"I guess she liked my voice," he said.

Performing here and there wasn't enough to make a living, so Perrera worked as a gardener and then machine operator. The couple had four daughters and saved up enough for a small house, but Wilbert's step-mother got sick and the couple ended up spending their down payment on her medical bills.

When the kids left and it was time to retire, the couple moved into a camper, collecting bottles and cans for income. They moved between parking lots at Doheny State Beach and Huntington Beach.

“We were bumming there, fishing," Louise Perrera said. "Living like gypsies."

Eventually, after a couple years on the waitlist, they ended up in a senior housing development operated by the nonprofit TELACU. Jasmime Borrego, TELACU's president, since there are 4,900 people still waiting to get in.

"If I have two, three vacancies a year, that's a lot," she said.

The demand for affordable housing for seniors, she said, is massively outpacing demand. There are 10,000 people turning 65 in the county every day, according to the National Council on Aging. Over 40 percent are low or moderate income.

"Where's the outcry for our seniors," Borrego said. "What did we do as a nation and a state to throw them into the gutter?"

Perrera said she knows she and her husband are lucky.

"That’s how it is," she said. "When you’re young, you don’t think of what’s going to happen."