A man sleeps next to trash cans in downtown San Diego. Photo by Chris Stone
A man sleeps next to trash cans in downtown San Diego. Photo by Chris Stone

San Diego County continues to confront the challenge of homelessness among far too many of our neighbors. It is a problem top of mind for many elected officials, businesses, individuals, and service providers like Serving Seniors.

A critical factor to providing solutions is to understand the nature and scope of the problem. We may see people experiencing homelessness living in tents in a new area. But does this mean the problem is growing, or changing?

The importance of the Feb. 24 Point-in-Time Count cannot be overstated. The PITC is an annual census and survey of homeless persons who are sheltered in emergency shelter, transitional housing, and safe haven programs on a single night.

A count of unsheltered people must also take place on the same day, providing a comprehensive scope identifying the extent of this problem. This count is required for all recipients of Housing and Urban Development funding.

Normally, the PITC takes place during the last week of January each year. It was suspended in 2021 due to the coronavirus pandemic and delayed for one month in 2022 due to the Omicron variant surge.

Point-in-time counts are vital to learning the extent and the nature of homelessness in each region including San Diego. It goes far beyond the raw number of individuals experiencing homelessness. Their specific characteristics give organizations like Serving Seniors valuable insight into the needs of clients and helps identify trends both positive and negative.

Serving Seniors has 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.

It’s vital for our organization to get an updated picture of the homeless population over age 55. Has it grown or decreased? Has it changed in any significant way? One in four San Diegans who are currently homeless are over age 55. It’s a significant challenge hiding in plain sight.

The PITC exercise gives us the kind of information needed about older adults experiencing homelessness for successful policy development and long-term planning.

We already know 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 drive homelessness among older adults. 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 also value the PITC to renew public attention to the crisis of homelessness in our midst. It’s heartening to see hundreds of San Diegans stepping forward to rise before dawn and join the volunteer teams who will canvas streets, parks, beaches, and more to get an accurate picture of those clinging to existence as best they can, and learning more about their circumstances.

It’s not too late to volunteer to participate in San Diego County’s count. Visit the Regional Task Force on Homelessness website here to sign up. Volunteers are needed throughout the county from Oceanside to San Ysidro, from the beaches to the desert. Homelessness is not confined to the streets of downtown San Diego.

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.