Irene Murphy, 58, lost her job and her savings after moving back to Boston to help her daughters, and wound up homeless. Now she is back on her feet, living in a subsidized Roxbury apartment with her cat, Storm. The internship she got at local nonprofit Operation A.B.L.E. is enough to pay the bills, but now she needs a job. (Daniela Caride photo)
|After losing her job, her savings and her home, Irene Murphy has taken a paid internship at the offices of Operation A.B.L.E., where she has started to learn new skills. She now interviews people to assess their abilities and evaluate whether they are a good fit for the organization. (Daniela Caride photo)
|Operation A.B.L.E. Executive Director Joan Cirillo says that one of the biggest challenges for senior citizens who have been turned down many times in job interviews is to rebuild their confidence and keep trying. (Daniela Caride photo)
Irene Murphy didn’t have much to celebrate when she turned 50 in 2000. The Boston newspaper she worked for as a data-entry supervisor fired her during downsizing.
“You can be up here and, in an instant, you’re … down. So you have to keep moving, you have to keep trying,” says Murphy.
After months spent searching, Murphy still couldn’t find a job. She didn’t want to leave Boston, her home since she moved here from New Jersey at the age of 14. But with no employment options, she headed to Florida, where the market looked a bit better.
She soon realized that she would hit a wall wherever she went — her age was preventing her from getting a job as good as her previous one.
“When you turn 50, you have a sign on your head,” says Murphy.
She had been turned down in the few job interviews she got in Boston, and in Florida she could find only a position in telemarketing. She didn’t like it, but at least it paid well, she says.
Murphy is part of a growing number of aging Americans who still need to work. The 55-and-older age group, which made up 13 percent of the labor force in 2000, is projected to increase to 20 percent by 2020, according to a May 2002 report published by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. The study anticipated that the group would constitute 19 percent of the labor force by 2050.
“Our nation is growing older, and it is happening quickly,” the Massachusetts Institute for a New Commonwealth reported in a June 2004 study titled “The Graying of Massachusetts: Aging, the New Rules of Retirement and the Changing Workforce.”
According to the study, one out of every eight people in the U.S. was 65 years or older in 2004. By 2030, one out of five people (20 percent) will be 65 years or older. In Massachusetts, 13.5 percent of the population was 65 and older in 2000, a figure expected to increase to 18 percent by 2025.
With the nation in the grip of an economic downturn, it’s become increasingly difficult for older U.S. residents to pay their bills. Many who have retired cannot live on their savings, pensions or Social Security benefits any longer. Some have been laid off and cannot find work in their specialties.
Some have also lost their jobs because of age discrimination, according to Operation A.B.L.E. (Ability Based on Long Experience), a Boston-based nonprofit that serves as an employment and training resource for job seekers age 45 and older.
In the job market, “aging is very difficult,” says Murphy. “They say there’s no discrimination against age, but when you go there, they see your gray hair. When they look at your resume, they see what year you graduated from high school. So, they know.”
With more senior citizens now looking for work, a market in which jobs were already scarce has become even more overcrowded. And Murphy has experienced her share of hardship.
After five years living and working in Florida, crisis struck again. Her oldest daughter, Dawn Bonilla, needed a second job and couldn’t afford a babysitter for her five children. So Murphy left her job and moved to Pittsfield, Mass., to help out.
Six months later, when Dawn got back on her feet, Murphy’s youngest daughter, Randi Bonilla, began to struggle with a high-risk pregnancy. Off Murphy went to Boston to help her, having already spent almost all of her savings.
A year passed, and Murphy ended up with no money, no job and no home. At 55, she could barely get an interview, no matter how many applications she sent out, and she couldn’t stay any longer at her daughter’s house, which is subsidized by the government.
She moved to her sister’s house, a few blocks away from daughter Randi. There, Murphy’s life got even more complicated. They couldn’t get along.
“Half the time I was spending the night at somebody else’s house,” recalls Murphy, who says she was sinking into depression. “I didn’t have nowhere to go, and couldn’t find a job.”
Murphy wound up living on the streets and losing almost all of her belongings. When she finally got a bed at the Pine Street Inn, a shelter in the South End, she says she got some comfort, but also lost her privacy.
Being homeless “is hard,” says Murphy. At the shelter, she says, she saw a bit of everything.
“One time I woke up at two in the morning and this lady was trying to touch me. … People talk to themselves all day, sometimes they didn’t even know where they were. … I saw pregnant women whose parents didn’t want them … I saw a lot of fights, and people would steal my food.”
The list goes on and on.
“I never called the shelter ‘home.’ Ever,” says Murphy. But “psychologically,” she says, she “was feeling much better” there.
Her healing process took the next step forward when Murphy found Operation A.B.L.E., which offered her help in getting job training and expanding the range of careers she could enter.
One day Murphy was crying on the phone with her mother, Sara Jean, about not being able to find a job when her mother remembered having seen an ad on help for unemployed elders on TV. After a few days, she saw it again and took notes. Murphy called right away.
“I broke down on the phone. I couldn’t believe there was a place to help people in my situation at my age,” Murphy says. “And just to know that there was somebody on the other end of that phone that understood … it was like [having hope again].”
Operation A.B.L.E. Executive Director Joan Cirillo says that one of the biggest challenges for senior citizens who have been turned down so many times in job interviews is to rebuild their confidence. Sometimes they have the necessary skills to get a new job, but arrive so depressed “that their shoulders are saggy and their heads are down,” says Cirillo.
Murphy says she fit that description.
“I like me, and I always had a lot of confidence, but I lost all of it,” she remembers.
Murphy soon began a paid internship as an employment specialist at the Boston offices of Operation A.B.L.E., where she started learning new skills. She now interviews people to assess their abilities and evaluate whether they are a good fit for the organization’s services.
“That’s something I never in my life would think I would ever do, and I love it. It’s where I belong,” says Murphy. “I can relate to … the clients that I see and help.”
After she secured an occupation, Murphy applied for affordable housing. And in July, she moved into her new home in Roxbury. She was so happy, she says, that she sat on the floor with her CD player and listened to her favorite Motown songs for hours.
Murphy’s story is an example of the good things that can happen to those who don’t give up, according to Tom McFarland.
“Everyday she just put one foot in front of another,” says McFarland, communications director for Operation A.B.L.E. of Greater Boston. He himself has been one of the organization’s clients, and says he has followed Murphy’s development.
But Murphy’s challenges are far from over. She still needs a job.
“I’m still not where I was before,” she says. “This is a program. It’s still not a job, and I need one of those.”
Taking the opportunity to market herself, she adds, “So, if anybody knows …”
According to Cirillo, the economic crisis has “impacted everyone.” But she believes that, during difficult times, people who are investing in learning and training “are doing the right thing.”
“You’re skilling up … for when the market gets better,” says Cirillo.
Murphy says she feels more ready than ever to get a job. She is sure she will overcome the hardships she now faces by adopting the same attitude she did when she was homeless.
“If you can put your nose up in the air and turn when somebody calls you this or that, you can make it,” she says.
At the Web site of the Boston-based nonprofit that helped Irene Murphy get back on her feet, you can learn more about the resources and training available for job seekers age 45 and older. More »
You'll need to register an e-mail address on the Web site of the Massachusetts Institute for a New Commonwealth -- don't worry; doing so is free and easy -- but once you do, you can access their whole 2004 research report on the growing population of older members of the state's workforce. You can download a summary of its findings, read individual chapters or dive into the complete study. More » (NOTE: The report is in PDF format, and Adobe Reader is required to read it. You can download the latest version here.)
Food pantries and other service-oriented nonprofits in Boston and across the state are getting ready for what could be a perfect storm of increased demand, lower supply and a scarcity of cash as they try to stem rising homelessness and hunger rates this holiday season. More »