Teri Petersen never thought she’d end up living on the street.
The petite 65-year-old worked for years. She’s a former PTA president.
Yet there she was on a rainy day this September, confronting a reality she’d never imagined for the second time in a few years.
This time, a case manager told her she might be forced to wait up to three months to get into temporary housing. Fear set in.
“It was like, ‘Oh God, what else could go wrong?’” Petersen recalled.
Petersen spent days and nights on public transit, pulling a hooded sweatshirt over her face to sleep. She downloaded Netflix shows at a coffee shop to watch on the road and visited a friend’s East County home twice a week to shower.
“I’d always try and not look homeless,” Petersen said.
Advocates for the homeless and nonprofits that serve seniors say such stories are increasingly common. The number of adults over 55 living on streets countywide more than doubled from 2015 to 2016, according to the annual January census by the Regional Task Force on the Homeless.
2-1-1 San Diego, which refers callers to services, reported a 64 percent spike in calls from seniors seeking help with housing needs between November 2015 and October 2016 – though it also saw similar increases across all age groups. Nonprofits that serve seniors say they’re hearing more concerns about housing costs and requests for housing aid.
But what further distinguishes San Diego’s senior homelessness problem from the broader challenge is that San Diego County’s overall senior population is poised to boom. SANDAG, the regional planning agency, has predicted the number of San Diegans over 55 will rise 55 percent between 2012 and 2035.
A decade ago, less than a quarter of clients sleeping in temporary beds downtown at Father Joe’s Villages were over 50. Today, the region’s largest homeless-serving nonprofit reports 42 percent of those clients are seniors. Nearby PATH San Diego’s Connections Housing, which operates permanent units and an interim shelter downtown, says about half its clients are seniors. Just a few years ago, seniors made up about a third of the nonprofit’s clientele.
National studies predict further increases in senior homelessness. The National Alliance to End Homelessness, a D.C.-based policy group, has estimated the senior homeless population could rise 33 percent nationally between 2010 and 2020 – and more than double by 2050.
Experts emphasize both the moral and systemic costs likely to come with that uptick.
A UC San Francisco study of 350 homeless seniors in Oakland has revealed homeless adults in their late 50s often face health issues similar to those in their 70s or 80s.
They can struggle to walk or get dressed or become more easily disoriented, said Margot Kushel, a UCSF medical school professor leading the research. “In the homeless population, 50 is the new 75.”
Indeed, health conditions are aggravated by life on the streets.
Just ask 64-year-old Harry Payne, who until recently spent his nights in a tent in East Village. He’d been there since last July, after he said county health workers condemned a $500-a-month trailer he’d been living in.
Payne, a veteran who served in both the Army and the Air Force, listed health problems that worsened on the street: a bad ankle that needs to be operated on, arthritis in his shoulders, asthma, high blood pressure and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.
Before police helped him get a bed at Father Joe’s interim shelter, Payne said thieves often stole his pain medication. Anxiety about those who might prey upon him kept him up at night. The cold, hard concrete only added to his troubles.
“I need to be indoors,” said Payne, who’s now trying to find an apartment with the help of a housing voucher for veterans.
Kushel and others say health and homeless services will need to adjust to better serve clients like Payne.
The challenge is complicated, Kushel said, by both a lack of affordable housing and two differing populations of homeless seniors: a cohort of chronically homeless baby boomers who’ve aged on the streets, and folks like Payne and Peterson, who became homeless as seniors.
The latter group is significant, Kushel said.
Nearly 45 percent of participants in the Oakland study became homeless after age 50 and often struggled to navigate a complex homeless-serving system with limited resources.
“Folks who are losing their house late are winding up unsheltered,” Kushel said. “They’re totally disoriented.”
Paul Downey, CEO of nonprofit Serving Seniors, is all too familiar with those stories. His group offers a slew of services to low-income seniors countywide, including a homeless prevention program that usually has a two-to-three month waiting list.
He said the organization is racing to keep up with an increasing volume of seniors set back by financial challenges.
Serving Seniors helped Petersen move into a temporary room at a downtown single-room occupancy hotel – after she spent six weeks on the street. Now she’s preparing to search for a permanent home.
Downey’s convinced the region and the state must do more to address the increasing affordability challenges for seniors like Payne and Petersen.
“In my mind, the alarm bells and red lights are flashing,” Downey said.
Officials with Jewish Family Service and ElderHelp, which both devote significant resources to senior services, are worried, too.
In a single month earlier this year, ElderHelp said it fielded 320 calls from seniors who needed help coping with rising rents or finding more affordable housing options.
Many seniors are finding common monthly Social Security incomes between $800 and $1,000 aren’t cutting it in today’s housing market.
“To live in San Diego just isn’t possible,” said Shanika Webb of ElderHelp.
Jane, a 65-year-old Mira Mesa woman who asked that I not use her last name, is one of the seniors devastated by San Diego’s tightening rental market and rising costs. The single mother spent a career working in human resources and later caregiving, sometimes working two jobs at once, before back pain and a series of surgeries forced her to retire.
At the time, she received just under $1,100 per month in Social Security income, about $50 more than the monthly rent for her Mira Mesa condo.
That wasn’t enough to cover Jane’s car payment or grocery bills. She ended up leaving her condo behind.
A friend invited Jane to move in with her while she awaits a spot in Serving Senior’s homeless prevention program. Now she’s constantly thinking about others who didn’t have that option – and hoping for the best for herself.
“We have very, very little in San Diego County to help,” Jane said.
Dolores Diaz, who leads the Regional Task Force on the Homeless, said she hopes the region will prioritize discussions about supports and services for seniors in light of the massive uptick her group found during last year’s homeless census.
“This data screamed at us, ‘Your unsheltered population is aging,’” Diaz said. “’What are you going to do about it?’”