Alpha Project winter shelter
The Alpha Project’s winter shelter. File photo from public service commercial

As colder, wet weather moves into San Diego County for the winter, older adults experiencing homelessness feel a sense of dread. Homelessness is challenging at any age, but the health and social challenges specific to aging can be daunting for older adults and those working to find solutions. 

As Times of San Diego reported on Nov. 24, the City of San Diego’s Homelessness Strategies and Solutions Department, San Diego Housing Commission and the Regional Task Force on Homelessness worked with shelter providers including the Alpha Project, Father Joe’s Villages, People Assisting the Homeless, San Diego Rescue Mission and other organizations to expand shelter capacity during cold, rainy days.

For example, the City of San Diego offers an inclement weather shelter activated when there is a 40% chance of rain combined with temperatures below 50 degrees, as there was this week; or anytime the low temperature drops to 45 degrees. The accommodations are single cots; residents must be out by 5 a.m. 

My organization, Serving Seniors, focuses on the specific, unique needs of older adults experiencing homelessness. One in four San Diegans who are currently homeless are over age 55. It’s a significant challenge hiding in plain sight. For an older adult who has mobility issues, lowering themselves onto a cot is simply not feasible. 

As older adults experience more limitations due to aging, traditional congregate shelter environments do not always offer a good fit. Examples include:

  • Provisions to manage complex health issues
  • Sensitivity to mobility, incontinence, and physical limitations
  • Operational rules requiring older adults to leave shelters during the day with nowhere to go or stand-in, self-service lines
  • A heightened need for safety and security
  • Staff trained to recognize and address the unique needs of older adults

As a result, older adults generally avoid traditional congregate shelters. For an older adult who has mobility issues, or who relies on a walker or wheelchair, lowering themselves onto a cot is simply not feasible. 

Even for those who are physically able, the crowding, noise, lack of privacy, and higher risk of theft or physical harm from predators keeps them away. Older women are particularly vulnerable in these settings.

When Serving Seniors conducted its 2021 Needs Assessment report, more than one third of older adults who sought shelter (36%) would prefer a shelter specifically for older adults ages 55 and over, or a shelter with a designated area for older adults. Women expressed a stronger preference for age specific shelters (41%) than men (32%). This may reflect the safety and privacy concerns shared by women experiencing homelessness.

Serving Seniors has exclusively served San Diego’s low-income, older adult population for 51 years. Our services are needed to address the many 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. 

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 address the needs of older individuals with a loss of housing. Serving Seniors is actively working with the Regional Task Force on Homelessness, San Diego County, the City of San Diego, San Diego Housing Commission, and other concerned nonprofit organizations to implement near term solutions while we work toward ways to offer viable alternatives to older adults than their cars or the streets. 

Accessibility for all shelter residents must be a non-negotiable requirement for those over 55 or any age. Secured, safe space should be allotted to older adults to relieve their fears about being preyed upon due to their vulnerabilities. Accommodations to avoid cattle calls for services with long lines must be offered.

Shelters must change to become age-friendly to meet the needs of older adults experiencing homelessness.   This does not need to be difficult or expensive.  Accommodations can and must be done now.

The number of homeless adults over age 55 is projected to triple over the next decade. More people in need of temporary shelter will require these facilities to be realistic about their needs and see fit to work with them. Otherwise, they  will quite literally be left out in the cold.

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