Kathleen Burkland prays the Rosary, has a master's degree in psychology and, before arthritis forced her to quit, earned her living as a counselor for at-risk teens.
A year ago, she was also homeless.
The 61-year-old grandmother wears a dark blazer and white pendant when I enter her studio apartment in Novato's Next Key transitional housing on a recent Thursday. Straight, neatly combed gray hair falls to her shoulders. She leans heavily on a cane—the result of six knee surgeries—as she leads me to a table by a window overlooking the green fields and clear morning skies of idyllic Marin.
Now enrolled in a Ph.D. program that will allow her to teach online, Burkland says the stigma of transience kept her from sharing her situation when she was shelter-bound—especially in one of the wealthiest census tracts in the United States.
"I could never really say where I was when I was [in the shelter]," she says, resting her right hand on the cane. "It was humiliating—all these people have wonderful places to live and all this money, and I would think, 'God, I don't want anybody to know I'm homeless.'"
Burkland may seem like an unlikely candidate for homelessness, but in Marin, she's not. She's over 50 and physically disabled; according to the county's 2011 homelessness survey, she fits right in.
"We've noticed that the homeless population is aging," says Paul Fordham, deputy director for the county's main network of shelters, Homeward Bound. He references the fact that roughly one-fourth of the total homeless population (287 of 1,220) was over 51 in last year's count, and offers several explanations.
"Anecdotally, I can say that a lot of things catch up with folks later in life: PTSD from the military, putting aside an amount for retirement that then isn't enough, disabilities. And then market-rate housing is so high."
It's not just high; for renters, Marin tops the list of the least affordable markets in the United States, according to an annual study by the National Low Income Housing Coalition. And while the median county rent of $1,523 shouldn't be a problem for the median county household earning $89,268, other residents, such as seniors and the disabled, are struggling with one of life's most basic necessities: where to live.
In some communities, this is where low-income housing would come into play, but for a variety of reasons—land-use restrictions, zoning policies and neighborhood opposition among them—Marin is lacking in below-market-rate units. According to a Novato-based advocacy group, this has forced 60 percent of the local workforce to live outside the county. But the shortage is also affecting Marin's disproportionately large population of seniors—21.2 percent over 62, compared to 14.2 percent California-wide—many of whom live on fixed incomes and struggle with age-based disabilities.
And the numbers say it's a big shortage. The Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) considers a one-person household "low-income" in Marin at $62,200, meaning that below that householders will have to pay more than 30 percent of their income on rent. An American Community Survey (ACS) from 2006-2010 examining age and ratio of income to the poverty level indicates that over half of Marin's residents over 65 fall into this bracket. According to a housing inventory released by the county in 2008, Marin is home to only 1,032 low-income units designated for seniors and 196 units for people with disabilities, a rough ratio of just one unit rented per 17 who qualify.
Of course, many aging adults may not want or even need subsidized housing. Some live in homes bought and paid off years ago. But wait lists tell another story.