Christensen, 62, never thought he would be in the position of potentially losing his home. But then the pandemic hit, and he lost his job as a cashier at a retail store. Soon he couldn’t keep up with the utility bills or property tax on the Monta Loma home that his parents purchased in 1980.
“It took me by surprise,” Christensen said, referring to the hardship of not having a steady income. “I thought I could get out of it with a credit card.”
Christensen fell into debt, racking up thousands of dollars on his credit card that he could not pay off. It got to the point where the water was shut off in his home, and the bills were sent to a collection agency that threatened legal action.
Last spring, Christensen learned about Community Services Agency (CSA), a social safety net provider for Mountain View’s most vulnerable residents.
“It has been such a help,” Christensen said, describing how CSA has helped him get back on his feet with the assistance of a case manager. Whereas Christensen had no income before, he now has access to monthly social security payments, something that his case manager set up. CSA also kicked in money to help cover his outstanding debts and connected him to a host of other social services. Christensen's first name is being withheld for client privacy.
“They got me back to the point where I can pay things off,” Christensen said. “I now take little steps and go as far as I can, even though I may not be able to see the end line.”
Christensen’s story is similar to many of those who rely on CSA to meet their basic needs. And their numbers are steadily growing.
Senior citizens are increasingly becoming the number one priority area for the organization, according to Executive Director Tom Myers. “Seniors are turning into a big, big issue,” he said, adding that they touch on nearly every aspect of the organization’s services.
CSA has two programs specifically dedicated to serving older populations. One of them, the Senior Services Program, has case managers who advocate on their clients’ behalf and help them access resources that often are difficult to navigate on their own.
“It really helps to have another person there,” Christensen said, explaining that his case manager also assists with medical appointments and transportation needs, as he has limited mobility. “Things go smoother and people are nicer when she is there,” he added.
But while a vital service, resources are stretched thin, which is increasingly the case with programs geared towards senior citizens.
“They are vulnerable earlier, and their life expectancy is longer. And that puts a tremendous strain on our resources,” Myers said.
The Senior Nutrition Program is also aimed towards an older demographic and offers lunch five days a week at the Mountain View Senior Center. Last year, the program served nearly 40,000 meals to more than 900 seniors, according to CSA's annual report.
But the program is not enough on its own to mitigate food insecurity. Seniors still rely on CSA's pantry for groceries, Myers said, a point that was highly visible on a weekday morning at the nonprofit's headquarters, where a line of people stretched out the door and around the building.
Another worrisome trend is the increasing number of seniors who are experiencing homelessness. A cornerstone of CSA is its Homeless Prevention Services, which provides rental, utility and direct financial assistance to housing insecure individuals, like Christensen. The number of people served by the program has dropped from pandemic highs, but the level of need is more severe, the annual report said.
“A lot of people, when they think of homelessness, they think it's people sleeping behind Safeway. Or they think it's people living in RVs. And the reality is that homelessness is starting to affect all kinds of people, and it’s starting to affect seniors more than anybody,” Myers said.
A recent UCSF study confirmed Myers’ observations. California’s homeless population is aging. Nearly half of the population is 50 years or older. And contrary to popular perceptions, they are not coming from other states. Rather, the majority of the state’s homeless population is from California, with a substantial portion experiencing homelessness because of the high cost of housing, according to the study.
This tracks with the experiences of seniors coming through the doors of CSA. The majority of them are on fixed incomes, and when rent or cost of living increases occur, it is difficult to stretch their budgets. They often have to make a choice between food, medical care and housing.
But while CSA is seeing an increase in need for rental assistance, funding for these kinds of programs is drying up. “The ARPA funds are gone,” Myers said, referring to the American Rescue Plan Act that provided emergency relief funds during the pandemic. As a result, other funding sources have become even more critical for CSA.
This includes donations from the Mountain View Voice Holiday Fund, an annual charitable giving drive that kicked off earlier this month and offers financial support to local nonprofits.
Every year, donations to the Holiday Fund are divided equally among a group of local nonprofits that serve people in need. The Voice and its Holiday Fund partner, the nonprofit Silicon Valley Community Foundation, absorb all administrative costs to run the fund, and all donations are tax-deductible.
For more information about the Holiday Fund, go to MV-Voice.com.com/holidayfund. To give a donation online, go to embarcaderomediafoundation.org/holiday-fund/mountain-view. Checks can be made payable to Mountain View Voice Holiday Fund and sent to 450 Cambridge Ave., Palo Alto 94306. The Holiday Fund campaign will run through early January, with grants awarded in the spring.