As a San Diego resident who spent two years living on the streets, I know how physically, mentally and emotionally traumatizing it is to live without a home. As an advocate for the rights and needs of seniors, I’m deeply upset that many more of our older neighbors are suffering as I did. Older adults are losing their housing at an alarming rate and becoming homeless for the first time, often living in encampments or their cars.
In response, our city has chosen to address homelessness by raiding encampments when we desperately need a more thoughtful, targeted, and effective approach, especially for our seniors. At the same time, the city administration asked the police department to once again enforce a law that banned people from living in their vehicles.
Now, the San Diego City Council is set to vote on a proposal to ban homeless encampments when shelter is available. And at all times within two blocks of schools and shelters, and along parks, public transit hubs and open spaces even when there isn’t shelter.
The truth is you cannot end homelessness by making it illegal. Clearing camps without offering a real alternative and throwing away people’s medications, bedding, ID documents and clothes makes the problem worse.
That’s especially true of older homeless individuals, who often have limited mobility, health issues, or disabilities. Seniors rely on the nearby community and relative safety that encampments provide in order to survive. Dismantling their homes and criminalizing their situation only exposes them to increased vulnerability and health risks.
It’s not camping. It’s survival and it’s inhumane.
Let’s be clear: No senior wants to be homeless. No one wants to sleep in their car or in a tent. The people who live this way are not camping. Even if seniors wanted to leave their tents and cars, shelters are full, they can be scary and crowded, and force people to abandon their pets or even their partners – relationships that help people survive.
We can do better for our elders by learning from cities that are getting it right.
Real solutions to homelessness focus on building affordable and accessible housing options. We can look to five successful programs across the United States for guidance and inspiration.
- Permanent Supportive Housing: Permanent Supportive Housing (PSH) programs provide stable housing and tailored support services for the most vulnerable homeless people, including those with disabilities and chronic health conditions. Permanent Supportive Housing is shown to “lower public costs associated with the use of crisis services such as shelters, hospitals, jails and prisons,” according to the National Alliance to End Homelessness.
- Senior Homeless Prevention Programs: Initiatives like San Mateo County’s Home Sharing Program connect seniors with shared living arrangements, which reduce individual housing costs and foster social support. Implementing programs like this can prevent older residents from experiencing homelessness in the first place.
- Medical Respite Care Programs: Boston Health Care for the Homeless Program provides short-term housing and care for homeless individuals who are too ill or frail to live on the streets or in shelters. Medical respite care facilities are explicitly tailored to the needs of older homeless individuals, ensuring their health and well-being are prioritized.
- Specialized Senior Shelters: San Francisco’s Curry Senior Center provides age-appropriate accommodations and services for older individuals experiencing homelessness. These shelters address unique needs like accessibility, privacy, and specialized healthcare.
- Geriatric Outreach and Case Management Programs: Chicago offers specialized programs for geriatric outreach and case management programs. These focus on connecting homeless seniors to housing, healthcare, and other essential services. Investing in expanding these services can ensure that older homeless residents receive the support they need.
Our seniors are being displaced from their housing because they can no longer afford rent.
Local leaders have an opportunity to learn from these successful programs and choose to implement targeted initiatives that prioritize prevention, specialized support, and long-term housing solutions for older homeless residents.
We can choose to be a country that values our seniors and ensures they have a safe place to call home in their golden years.