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Tuesday, February 22, 2005 | The “baby boomer” generation will start to head into senior citizen status next year. While many boomers are welcoming this stage of their lives, I am not as enthusiastic. Not because I, too, will be reaching this time before I know it, but because as the senior population grows, social services available to this group will be stretched too thin and more seniors will be left struggling to survive.

Add this senior population surge to the lack of affordable housing in San Diego County. As redevelopment continues, particularly in downtown, most of the low-income housing options are shutting down. For retired seniors living on a fixed income, the lack of an affordable place to live is pushing many out onto the streets.

Just ask 71-year-old Ralph Wegner. Before redevelopment took off, he was living in a single-room-occupancy hotel room in downtown for a mere $300 a month. The building may have been rundown; however, this was quite a find.

Wegner was taken by surprise when suddenly his rent increased to $550 a month because his building was undergoing a remodel to fit in with the redevelopment in the area. He was also given notice that the completion of the building remodel will lead to another rent increase.

Wegner suffers from several medical conditions, including high blood pressure, so medications need to be calculated into his monthly budget as well as other necessities, such as food, clothing and transportation. Already living on a dangerously tight budget, sharp increases in rent put Ralph one step closer to homelessness.

Unfortunately, Wegner’s story is not unique. At Senior Community Centers, we had more than 300 new homeless seniors ask us for help this past year. This number increases every year, and as the baby boomers become seniors, we are bracing ourselves for what is to come.

A New Kind of Homeless

What is even more alarming is the fact that the majority of the affordable housing options like single-room-occupancy hotels are shutting their doors in downtown due to the redevelopment. Unfortunately, these units will not be replaced as developers ignore the low-income end of the housing spectrum.

Although beautification of downtown is positive for the city as a whole, we cannot forget the needs of the people left behind. Affordable housing units are a critical part of the housing mix in San Diego.

Providing a Solution

This success proves that supportive housing, which combines social services with affordable housing, is a solution to the area’s homeless problem. We also found that investing in supportive housing is more cost effective than leaving people out on the streets. For example, prior to living at Potiker, most of the seniors were in need of multiple social services such as meals and mental health programs on a daily basis. Now, they are more independent and do not rely on social services nearly as much as before.

Although this sounds like great news, Potiker is the only supportive housing complex focusing on seniors with special needs in the area. With a capacity of just more than 200, this is barely scratching at the surface. The city, county and the business community need to take aggressive action and make affordable housing a priority in San Diego.

Our elected officials must create incentives such as low-interest loans, tax credits and expedited permit processing to encourage developers to build units for the lowest-income bracket. It is up to our community to stand up for our neighbors. Otherwise, seniors will be living, and dying, on the streets.

Paul Downey is President/CEO of Senior Community Centers, a non-profit agency helping low-income seniors survive in San Diego by providing nutrition, housing, medical and mental health services.

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