A homeless man sleeps below the entrance to the Ocean Beach Pier. Photo by Chris Stone
A homeless man sleeps below the entrance to the Ocean Beach Pier. Photo by Chris Stone

Two years ago this week, Serving Seniors was ordered to shut down one of its core services to impoverished San Diego County seniors to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

As the largest provider of meals to San Diego County’s older adults, we could no longer keep our 11 congregate meal sites open. Virtually overnight, Serving Seniors dramatically increased our home-delivered meals program and added to-go meals for clients.

Fortunately, we never missed a day. Serving Seniors managed to accommodate a three-fold increase in need for meals, and successfully provided 1.7 million meals the first year of the pandemic. But it took some help.

Since 1972, the national Senior Nutrition Program has provided support to programs like Serving Seniors to pay for meal services across the country. Funded by the Older Americans Act, the Administration for Community Living provides grants to states to support a network of local programs that deliver nutrition services to older adults. 

Serving Seniors was the first program in San Diego to provide meals under this act. This month, the Senior Nutrition Program marks its 50th anniversary.

San Diego County Supervisors Joel Anderson and Nathan Fletcher jointly presented a proclamation honoring this milestone at the Board of Supervisors meeting on March 15. San Diego Mayor Todd Gloria will join the Serving Seniors staff at our Gary and Mary West Senior Wellness Center on the anniversary date of Tuesday, March 22. Mayor Gloria will help serve meals and raise a toast to mark the occasion with our clients who benefit from this program daily.

Serving Seniors serves meals 365 days a year to seniors in all areas of San Diego County either by direct delivery or hosting seniors at one of its dining sites. In 2021, Serving Seniors served 6,500 seniors, 5,000 of whom live within the city of San Diego. Our robust nutrition program reduces food insecurity for low-income and homeless older adults and serves as link to receive other vital services including case management, housing, and access to enrichment activities.

Nutrition is a vital component of individual health and wellbeing, especially as we age. To date, Serving Seniors has provided over 14 million meals San Diego County seniors. We are on track to serve 1.5 million meals in 2022.

From providing meals to combatting the effects of social isolation, our mission to help seniors in poverty live healthy and fulfilling lives remains our core focus. The ultimate goal is to reduce senior homelessness, and by doing so reduce the overall rate of homelessness in San Diego County. Providing food is just the start.

We’re encouraged by recent developments. With a unanimous vote of 5-0, the Board of Supervisors passed a proposal introduced by Anderson and Supervisor Terra Lawson-Remer asking county staff to design a new pilot program providing a “shallow subsidy” to low-income, rent-burdened older adults who are at risk of homelessness.

The proposed pilot program is a direct outcome of findings in the Serving Seniors Homeless Needs Assessment report issued in September 2021. Many older adults become homeless because they lack an economic safety net. They suffer catastrophic events with dire financial consequences. Of the 400 low-income and homeless older adults surveyed for the study, more than half (56%) of those interviewed report an additional $300 or less of monthly income would increase their rent security.

Along with meals, a shallow subsidy program can be a strategic investment in preventing homelessness In the first place. This is a model colleagues across the country are eager to implement.

Serving Seniors is hopeful the city of San Diego will also enact a similar pilot program based on available federal and state resources, similar to the county. Mayor Gloria is currently crafting the city’s 2022-23 budget. Seven of nine city councilmembers have issued budget memos in support of this budget allotment.

The cost of providing shallow subsidies as a preventative measure pales in comparison to the cost of having people on the streets. From a taxpayer perspective it’s a winner. Further, it gives us the opportunity to help those struggling to help themselves to lift them up. From a humanitarian standpoint, it’s a must.

Fifty years from now, we hope our successors will be celebrating the anniversary of a new and effective program made possible by visionary leaders today.

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