Complex cases, caring staff: How Mizell Center is helping the state’s fastest-growing homeless population — senior citizens — overcome obstacles

Case managers are able to cut through red tape, get seniors into more secure financial situations, and vastly improve their quality of life and mental health. So far, hundreds have received assistance.
Denise Woodruff (left), director of case management services at the Mizell Center, works with a client in Palm Springs.

Until recently, Hilda, 79, didn’t have a place to live. 

But after the Indio Senior Center referred her to a program through the Mizell Center in Palm Springs – called geriatric case management – Hilda was able to move into her own apartment within just a few months, using a federal housing voucher. While waiting for her housing, Hilda’s case managers with Mizell coordinated with the Coachella Valley Rescue Mission and the Indio Police Department to ensure her safety.

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Hilda isn’t the only senior Mizell Center is helping. Case managers assist local seniors with applications for Medi-Cal and CalFresh, and help with utility assistance and affordable housing options. They also refer clients to transportation services, in-home care and counseling.

The service is coming at a critical time. California’s fastest-growing homeless population is made up of seniors, according to the Homeless Data Integration System. From 2017 to 2021, the state’s senior population grew by 7%, but the number of people 55 and older who accessed homelessness services increased by 84%.

One explanation could be that “rent prices just aren’t conducive to a Social Security paycheck,” said Denise Woodruff, the director of case management services at Mizell, where the average client is over 70 and lives off less than $2,000 a month. “When a one-bedroom apartment is going for $1,500 a month, it leaves them very rent-burdened.”

At Mizell, client impact statements paint a vivid picture of where some seniors were before the center’s case managers came into their lives.

Rochelle, 75, for one, was living alone and homebound in a second-floor apartment. She struggled to carry groceries up the stairs and was putting more than 50% of her income towards rent. Now, she’s paying half of what she used to spend on rent, gets benefits from Medi-Cal and Meals on Wheels, and receives free counseling and free in-home support services. 

Meanwhile, 69-year-old Kim, a regular at the Mizell Center, was living without food stamps, regular income or medical insurance because her permanent resident card, or green card, had expired. 

After months of submitting documentation and applications, and attending an in-person briefing at the immigration office, Kim finally got her green card and was able to receive a monthly supplemental security income benefit and more than $4,000 in benefits, dated back to the time of her initial application. 

In each of these complex cases, Mizell Center case managers were able to cut through red tape, get seniors into more secure financial situations, and vastly improve their quality of life and mental health. The geriatric case management program has been in place since February 2021.

“Before then,” Woodruff said, “[valley seniors] would just have to call the Riverside County Office on Aging. There was not a valley-wide, walk-in service until our program came along.”

Mizell’s small team of three case managers handles hundreds of clients. Since July of last year, they have enrolled 260 people, and over one full year, they’ve enrolled about 400 people. Other senior centers and homeless shelters in the Coachella Valley often refer people to the program, and new clients will also enroll after hearing about it during one of Mizell’s free lunch programs. 

Luckily, there’s no waitlist. 

“If someone signs up outside our normal drop-in hours, we call them back within 24 hours so we can get started helping them,” Woodruff said. 

Chart: Erica Yee, CalMatters  Source: Homeless Data Integration System  

The average wait time for people trying to get affordable housing, she added, is typically three to five years. “But it takes about four months to get our clients into housing, because we’ve found their age is a high qualifier for affordable housing,” she said. 

Still, not everyone can get housed. Woodruff estimates that Mizell helps secure housing for their clients about 75% of the time.

“A lot of the time, the client just becomes unreachable, and we can’t find them anymore,” she said. “We try to stay in contact and communicate about the process, but they have to show up to appointments.”

That’s part of the vicious cycle of homelessness; people with stable housing are more likely to take advantage of supportive services, but it’s difficult to get people housed without those supportive services.

Besides housing, one of the biggest things that case managers can help with is connecting clients with in-home caregivers through the Riverside County In-Home Supportive Services program, which requires clients to be enrolled in Medi-Cal. 

“Rent prices just aren’t conducive to a Social Security paycheck.”

Denise Woodruff, Mizell Center director of case management services

But some seniors just need help with transportation and food, and case managers assist with that, too. Typically, in less than two months, Mizell can connect them with the SunDial and SunRide services provided by Sunline Transit Agency and Meals on Wheels.

“That helps our previously homebound clients get outside and meet new people, be social and do some of the things that they enjoy and haven’t had access to,” Woodruff said.

In the future, Woodruff would like to expand the program by adding additional case managers who can take on more clients in the eastern Coachella Valley.

“We intend to continue to grow this department as much as possible, because we know the need is there,” she said. 

More information: The free Mizell program, currently funded by the Riverside County Office on Aging, is open to anyone over the age of 60. Participants do not have to be a Mizell Center member to participate. Learn more at


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