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For the first time since 2020, San Diego County conducted a Point-in-Time Count (PITC), a snapshot on a single day to determine the nature and size of the County’s population of people experiencing homelessness. While we won’t have the formal results for several more months, one thing was clear to me, the number of unsheltered seniors is increasing in our region.
Serving Seniors staff participated in the 2022 count in downtown San Diego. Most of the people I spoke with that day were over age 55. It didn’t escape my attention when Voice of San Diego reporter Lisa Halverstadt noted the ages of three unhoused adults she interviewed in her Feb. 28 article about surging street homelessness 68, 64, 51.
As the President/CEO of Serving Seniors, a nonprofit organization providing support to low-income and homeless adults over age 60, this reality was already apparent. That’s backed by data. According to San Diego’s 2020 Point-in-Time Count, one out of four of San Diego’s homeless adults is over the age of 55.
In 2021 in collaboration with the Regional Task Force on Homelessness and allied community organizations, we undertook formal research of older adult homelessness to grasp its true nature, to learn more about the specific causes as compared to the general adult homeless population and identify more effective support services and solutions.
What we learned surprised us.
The findings reveal the causes of homelessness among seniors – and the solutions – are distinct from the general unhoused population.
Economic forces such as insufficient retirement income, unaffordable housing options, the inability to continue working, or a single unexpected crisis such as job loss or serious illness are the primary drivers of homelessness among older adults. The research shows that nearly half (43 percent) were experiencing homelessness for the first time in their lives.
Traditional support services aren’t always helpful. Complex health issues, mobility limitations, incontinence, rules requiring older adults to stand in self-service lines, and a heightened need for physical safety leave seniors unable to cope with a congregate shelter environment.
To ward off the financial distress fueling older adult homelessness, our research found a minimal amount of monthly funding would successfully prevent most economic-based homelessness – a so-called “Shallow Subsidy” approach.
More than half (56 percent) of surveyed older adults reported that an additional $300 or less per month would make the difference between being housed and homeless. But only one-third (36 percent) of renters aged 62 or older who qualified for some form of federal rental assistance were receiving any.
County Supervisors Joel Anderson and Terra Lawson-Remer swiftly recognized the potential of this approach. We worked closely with their staffs to develop the Board action based on the Serving Seniors’ recommendation. On Feb. 8 by a unanimous vote, the Board of Supervisors approved creation of a pilot program with a full proposal due back in May.
The shallow subsidy approach uses funding to prevent homelessness from happening instead of chasing solutions aimed at sheltering people after the fact. Not only can this approach provide a more humane solution, but it saves money. Estimates provided by County staff for emergency shelter operating costs including services range between $2,500 to $6,000 per month depending on the type of services offered.
The City of San Diego also has the potential to fund a similar program. Mayor Todd Gloria is currently crafting his 2022-23 budget. Seven of nine City Councilmembers who have been made aware of a shallow subsidy approach have written budget memos urging the mayor to include a city pilot program in his budget due on April 15.
We must adjust our current approach to immediately address the needs of older individuals with a recent loss of housing. We know a hard push for affordable housing is the end goal, but people need help now. We have a golden opportunity to address several easily preventable problems through targeted leveraging of existing resources.
Currently, the federal reimbursement for one bed at an emergency shelter is $12.50 per person per night, or $375 per month. The diversion of funds from housing someone in a shelter to keeping them housed at $300 per month offers a near-term solution which even makes funding go further.
Demographics are working against us. The number of homeless adults over age 55 is projected to triple over the next decade. San Diegans should find this unacceptable. Homelessness in areas with high housing costs like San Diego County will grow unchecked unless we take immediate action.
But there’s reason for optimism. Shallow subsidy programs and other resources targeting older adult homelessness can help people quickly, allowing us to focus remaining resources on those who need more significant help.