A homeless person wears a top over her to walk along a downtown street in the rain. Photo by Chris Stone

Among the issues that fueled the recently rejected recall of California Gov. Gavin Newsom is a long-standing problem growing worse in our metropolitan areas including San Diego: homelessness.

Although it was the coronavirus pandemic and the impact on the state’s economy that launched the recall effort, polls show many Californians are even more concerned about homelessness. In an August 2021 Inside California Politics/Emerson College poll, more voters named homelessness as the number one issue facing California today, leading at 19%.

This issue will not fade from view after the recall election. It is likely to remain a leading issue in next year’s gubernatorial race. In San Diego County, residents experiencing homelessness has risen steadily in the last decade. First-time homelessness in San Diego doubled in 2020.

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. Among this group of unsheltered seniors, 88% became homeless in San Diego County and 43% are experiencing homelessness for the first time in their lives.

Serving Seniors has exclusively served San Diego’s low-income, older adult population for 51 years. 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 and identify more effective support services and solutions.

Senior Homelessness: A Needs Assessment was released this month. Its findings reveal significant differences working with older adults experiencing homelessness as compared to the general adult homeless population. Simply put, the causes of homelessness among seniors — and the solutions — are distinct.

Despite perceptions, only one in four currently or formerly homeless older adults surveyed reported struggling with mental health. Just 7% reported substance abuse issues.

Rather, it is primarily 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 which drive homelessness among older adults.

In addition, cognitive or physical impairments and difficulty accessing services due to age-related disabilities complicate older adults’ efforts to find help.

As a result, traditional support services aren’t always helpful. Congregate shelters may not have the capacity to manage the needs of older adults. 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 shelter environment.

We must adjust our current approach to immediately address the needs of older individuals with a recent loss of housing. Finding safe alternative housing is the goal.

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.

More than half (56%) 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%) of renters aged 62 or older who qualified for some form of federal rental assistance were receiving any.

A “Shallow Subsidy” approach recommends diverting current federal reimbursement funds for emergency shelter beds to an equivalent direct stipend to prevent homelessness.

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 offers a potential affordable, near-term solution without additional funding.

In tandem, taking a more proactive approach toward helping older adults find resources with easily accessible information and personal guidance along with better training and coordination among service providers would avoid delays in securing support, and prevent older adults ending up on our streets.

By providing data-driven findings and recommendations in our report, Serving Seniors and the Regional Task Force on Homelessness intends to support and encourage discussion among service providers, advocates, policymakers, and the community at large about older adult homelessness, and point the way to cost-effective solutions we can implement immediately.

We have a golden opportunity to address several easily preventable problems through targeted leveraging of existing resources.

The number of homeless adults over age 55 is projected to triple over the next decade. San Diegans should find this unacceptable. As the Baby Boomer generation continues to increase the percentage of older adults in the United States, homelessness in areas with high housing costs like San Diego County will grow unchecked unless we take immediate action. It is a matter of health and safety, and the time is now.

Paul Downey is CEO of Serving Seniors, a San Diego-based nonprofit that helps seniors in poverty live healthy and fulfilling lives.

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