Mayor Todd Gloria and Councilwoman Jen Campbell talk toElvida Elizalde, a homeless resident in the Ocean Beach area, while conductiing the Point-in-Time Count that surveys homeless individuals throughout the San Diego region on Feb. 24, 2022. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz
Mayor Todd Gloria and Councilwoman Jen Campbell talk to Elvida Elizalde, a homeless resident in the Ocean Beach area, while conducting the Point-in-Time Count that surveys homeless individuals throughout the San Diego region on Feb. 24, 2022. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

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It would be easy to feel dismayed by the latest results from the annual homeless census, We All Count Point-in-Time Count (PITC), which determines the size and scope of San Diego County’s population experiencing homelessness. The numbers show a 10 percent overall increase in the homeless population, but realistically we know this figure is low. Tamera Kohler, chief executive officer of the Regional Task Force on Homelessness, which conducts the count, admits the numbers are likely under reported based on data showing how many people have sought services over the last year.

The count also revealed something interesting about the population Serving Seniors supports. According to the count, adults 55 and older make up one in four San Diego County residents experiencing homelessness. The oldest person surveyed in the 2022 PITC was 87 years old.

This is a reality already apparent to us who work with low-income homeless adults over 60. One of our Serving Seniors homeless clients who accesses our free meals is 92 years old. I participated In the PITC as a volunteer and spoke with a 77-year-old man and a majority of the people I personally contacted were seniors.

What we’re learning about this population is that being homeless in San Diego County over age 55 is a completely different experience than those who are younger.

Senior homelessness is largely a function of catastrophic events, not mental illness, or addiction. Economic forces such as insufficient retirement income, unaffordable housing options, disability, or an unexpected crisis such as job loss or serious illness are the primary drivers. Half of San Diego’s homeless seniors became homeless within the past year.

The PITC reveals 57 percent of seniors experiencing homelessness have a physical disability. Our own Needs Assessment report published in 2021 had similar findings.

Any solution for homeless older adults needs to address their reality. Congregate shelters don’t cut it. Imagine a 70-year-old woman being asked to sleep in a top bunk bed, in a room with much younger people, many of whom are suffering from addiction or mental illness.

Older adults will sleep in their cars if they can. The next best option is a tent which allows some sense of privacy and safety. It’s no surprise to me to see the dramatic increase in tents downtown and in other areas.

Although congregate shelters are the accepted solution because they’re cost effective, they do little to stem this growing senior homelessness tide. That’s why the RTFH’s Continuum of Care Board just adopted new community standards for older adults living in shelters. The goal is to make existing shelters more age-friendly while plans for a dedicated older adult shelter are developed.

Serving Seniors’ research found a minimal amount of monthly funding would successfully prevent most economic-based homelessness – a so-called “shallow rental subsidy” approach. More than half (56 percent) of older adults surveyed in 2021 by Serving Seniors in the 2021 Serving Seniors Needs Assessment reported that an additional $300 or less per month would make the difference between being housed and homeless.

The shallow rental subsidy approach prevents homelessness instead of chasing solutions after the fact. This solution saves money and it’s far more humane. Estimates provided by county staff for emergency shelter operating costs including services range between $2,500 to $6,000 per month depending on services offered.

County Supervisors Joel Anderson and Terra Lawson-Remer swiftly recognized the potential of this approach. On Feb. 8 by a unanimous 5-0 vote, the Board of Supervisors approved creation of a shallow rental subsidy pilot program. The full proposal returns for a vote on June 14 – less than nine months since our Needs Assessment report was issued in September 2021.

We’re also working with city of San Diego officials to fund a similar program in the 2022-23 budget. Seven of nine city councilmembers have written budget memos urging Mayor Todd Gloria to include a city pilot shallow subsidy pilot program.

In addition, Serving Seniors is pressing decision-makers and funders to create age-friendly shelters and dedicated shelters for seniors to accommodate aging and mobility issues. The county of San Diego is implementing specific staff training on homelessness and aging issues and embracing other easily implemented accommodations.

At the State of California level, AB 2547 would provide ongoing housing/homelessness solutions for older adults by creating a targeted housing stabilization program like the county’s shallow rental subsidy proposal.

Shallow rental subsidy programs and other resources targeting older adult homelessness can help people quickly. From a taxpayer perspective, subsidies are far more cost-effective than street clean-ups. From a humanitarian standpoint, Serving Seniors sees these efforts as a must.

Yes, affordable housing is the end goal, but in San Diego development has always been a difficult proposition. People need help now. Demographics are working against us. We have a golden opportunity to address easily preventable problems through targeted leveraging of existing resources.

Paul Downey

Paul Downey is President/CEO of Serving Seniors, a nonprofit organization based in San Diego, California, dedicated to serving low-income adults aged 60...

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2 Comments

  1. I have sent lengthy E-mails to our San Diego agencies for over 3 years and to Todd Gloria about “Tiny Houses” that many manufactures are now building in many configurations and materials. They can be shipped and put into place; they are very nice, inexpensive, in the ballpark to be less than “shelters” that no one wants to live in (you’ve already figured that out.) My education is in Psychology and I have helped my area homeless for over 25 years. I know “my people” well – all ages, all backgrounds, 4 Viet Nam Vets. After 4 years of fighting our local government, I finally found housing for 2 of the Vets. That is just WRONG. None of those I have helped will go to shelters – they would rather sleep in the rain….they want and need some privacy and dignity – WILL NOT stay in “dorm rooms” in beds stacked down isles. Their possessions (whatever they may be) are all they have and very important to them. All you need is a piece of land, porta potties, porta showers, maybe some food trucks for delivery, some patio tables and overhead tent for gathering, eating. Allow people to bring their dogs. Have a counselor visit the people on a regular basis. I found over 10 manufactures of these wonderful little houses at varying price points. Please look into this. I have asked our City for over three years now to see styles, pictures and prices. You will be amazed to find the cost is likely MUCH LESS than shelters. Did you see the movie, Build It and They will come? I am certain about what these people want and need to live better and healthier lives — like human beings.

  2. @Paul Downey – Thank you for continuing to be the voice for our vulnerable elder population in San Diego. The shallow subsidy program is a thoughtful, cost-efficient, and innovative approach to keeping our seniors in safe, stable housing.

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