Roofless Retirement

Low-income seniors say housing in Juneau has become a constant struggle

Posted: Monday, November 16, 2009

Mary Gunderson and Dorothy "Dottie" Norden live in low-income housing for seniors. Brian Richardson lives in a beached, tarp-draped, plywood-roofed boat near Thane. All three are senior citizens living mostly off Social Security income, and all three call themselves "lucky."

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Michael Penn / Juneau Empire
Michael Penn / Juneau Empire

One kind of roof

Gunderson, 74, and Norden, 84, have lived across the hall from each other for the past 10 years. Both women are widows. Both raised five children. Both say if it weren't for Smith Hall, low-income housing for seniors managed and sponsored by local nonprofit St. Vincent de Paul, they'd have to move in with one of their children.

At Smith Hall, residents pay 30 percent of their income toward rent and utilities.

"I feel awfully lucky that I'm here," said Gunderson as she unpacked groceries on a recent weekday afternoon. "It's really hard trying to make ends meet. Sometimes it just gets really difficult to have to depend on other people when you've been so independent all these years."

Gunderson is a thrifty shopper; the bags she unpacked contained $21 worth of groceries, bargained down with coupons. She has ordered a holiday food basket and plans on cooking Thanksgiving dinner for 10 people.

Gunderson said she spends half of her Permanent Fund dividend check on food.

Norden said her biggest cost is food as well.

"Groceries have gone up terribly," she said.

Norden grew up during the Great Depression and said she feels she's "doing okay," though, like many others who depend on Social Security, she is displeased with the possibility of not receiving a Social Security cost-of-living increase this year.

She has been living in low-income housing since the 1980s, when her husband left Juneau and the bank foreclosed on her house, she said. She's been living at Smith Hall since it opened.

Now retired, she gets about $1,000 a month in Social Security, and has told her children she doesn't need help.

"Pride, I guess," she said.

What little discretionary income she has, she spends on "things that make me happy" -replicas of the china plates used in the White House from the first American presidents, magnets, pictures or the occasional rented classic movie.

Gunderson said she saves and takes a trip south to visit her children every few years. But this winter she anticipates being "hard."

"I feel very fortunate to be here," she said.


According to the Alaska Commission on Aging, the population of senior citizens in Alaska is growing faster than that of any other state.

Alaska's population of those age 60 and older increased 43 percent from 2001 to 2008. In Southeast Alaska, that population increased 35 percent. In Juneau, it increased 44 percent.

"While Alaska seniors appear no more likely to be living in poverty than the national average among seniors, many of them are struggling to get by financially," said the 2008 "Senior Snapshot."

Nationally, the average social security payment for a retired worker in 2009 is $1,153 per month.

Dan Austin, general manager of St. Vincent de Paul, said while the elderly are not the largest population of homeless, they are the fastest growing.

"Over the last couple of years, we have noticed a large increase in the percentage of seniors," he said. "We didn't used to see so many seniors coming to us homeless."

Austin anticipates that number will keep increasing as the baby boomer generation hits retirement age.

"When a person in my generation hits retirement, if they have to live on Social Security and they have no other income, no retirement from a previous job - and particularly if they lack family support - there's no way that they could go out into the marketplace and purchase decent housing that they could afford," he said.

That's a conclusion with which Mariya Lovishchuk, executive director of the Glory Hole shelter, agrees.

"The sad thing is that a lot of them are veterans," she added.

One of those veterans is Brian Richardson.

A different roof

Richardson, 72, has worked doing interior painting. He's done seasonal fishing. He worked as an electrician while in the military in the late 1950s. He's worked as a janitor. Then, a few years ago, his health got too bad.

He's lived off and on in a boat his whole life, he said - but now he does it with the $300 a month he gets from Social Security.

"The prices are way too high," Richardson said. "Alaska is going crazy with rent."

When Richardson runs out of food, he walks a few miles to the Glory Hole. When he's cold, he gets in his sleeping bag. When it's damp, he lights a candle.

"It's getting tougher and tougher and I'm getting older and older," he said.

But at the same time, the boat is home, and he says he's happy living there.

"As long as it's dry, I'm happy," he said. "Other people are worse off ... living in tents. You've got to be tough to be an Alaskan."

Ray Cole is 60. He's worked retail and odd jobs. For the past 11 years, he drove a taxi.

Then, a little more than a month and a half ago, his blood pressure was too high to pass his required physical. He got help with medication; now he's just waiting for his physical to clear before he can go back to work.

Cole lived at the Bergman Hotel before he stopped being able to afford it.

And housing in Juneau?

"Ouch. It's the most expensive place I've ever seen," he said.

Cole isn't sure what amount he'll get through social security, but says he worked under the table some and it won't be adequate.

Different people cite different solutions for the predicaments they face. Norden said a social security cost-of-living adjustment would help. Cole said money is "always what it comes down to."

Homeless seniors, those who are financially limited and those that help them all say more affordable housing is a must.

In the meantime, as Cole anticipates his retirement, "What I'll be getting might pay living expenses as far as rent goes, but there are still other expenses," he said.

"That's my retirement. Work."

• Contact reporter Mary Catharine Martin at 523-2276 or

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