An unsheltered woman sleeps on concrete wall overlooking Ocean Beach Pier and New Year's Day visitors taking selfies.
An unsheltered woman sleeps on concrete wall overlooking Ocean Beach Pier and New Year’s Day visitors taking selfies at sunset. Photo by Chris Stone

It’s not news that San Diego is an expensive place to live. This year’s record rise in local housing costs coupled with inflation pressure is making residents feel the economic heat. 

Thousands of older adults who were already struggling financially are experiencing severe consequences, including the increasing threat of homelessness. At Serving Seniors we see this daily as low-income and homeless adults over age 60 take part in our meal programs and other services.

Our clients depend both on nonprofit organizations and public assistance programs like Medi-Cal to survive. But even when they are eligible to receive Social Security, it’s not enough. 

Currently, Federal Poverty Level guidelines created in the 1960s determine whether seniors are eligible for government assistance programs. Today in 2022, they have little relevance, especially in high-cost areas like San Diego. As a result, seniors living in poverty are shocked to learn they “make too much” income to qualify for help. 

The current federal poverty threshold for a single person household is $12,996; for two people it is $16,379. This is the figure used as a baseline qualification. Does anyone believe you can live in San Diego County on this amount of money? Even when older adults can begin receiving Social Security at age 62, they still suffer financial insecurity. 

Experts in gerontology and public policy have developed a more accurate measure of poverty. The Elder Economic Security Standard Index, or “Elder Index,” uses data from the U.S. Census and Department of Housing and Urban Development to produce real-world guideline which also consider regional costs of living. 

In 2020, University of Massachusetts Boston professor Jan Mutchler set out to answer this question: will you have enough money to afford your local cost of living? Her study, Aging in the 100 Largest Metropolitan Areas: How Do Older Adults Fare? found at least one third of single residents age 65 and older and one in ten older couples in the 100 largest cities including San Diego are risk of being unable to afford basic needs (housing, food, transportation, and health care). 

According to the Elder Index, the average minimum income needed is $27,096 for an individual, twice the federal poverty threshold. In high income areas like San Diego, things are much worse. The Elder Index calculates $34,248 for a senior in good health as the minimum annual income to avoid poverty. The “gap” between federal guidelines and the income a San Diego senior needs to meet his or her basic needs is $21,252. 

In every U.S. county measured, no matter the state or metro area, the Elder Index is higher than the average Social Security payment, meaning Social Security alone is insufficient to meet basic living expenses. See the Elder Index numbers for all 384 metro areas on the Elder Index site.

Half of all Americans and a majority of San Diego’s older adults living alone don’t have enough income to support daily living. This should be unacceptable to everyone. 

Some communities have made progress in providing more subsidized housing and more generous nutrition programs to offset food costs, like the programs offered through Serving Seniors, supported through government funding, private grants, and the generosity of our many donors. Other programs help people pay their basic utilities or property taxes. But people need to know about them and be able to access them.

At a basic level, continuing to support or raise support for Medicare to help older people pay their health expenses is a must. 

Many of us involved in the fight against senior homelessness are calling for the Elder Index to replace the federal guideline. The UCLA Center for Policy Research is working to refine this tool for use in California. 

San Diegans recently named homelessness and affordable housing as their top issues of concern. Our services are focused on addressing the significant differences working with older adults at risk of homelessness as compared to the general adult homeless population. Most people 55 and up who find themselves who become homeless lack an economic safety net. 

This is a problem we can solve. Of the 400 low-income and homeless older adults surveyed for our 2021 Needs Assessment study, 56% of those interviewed report an additional $300 or less of monthly income would increase their rent security.  

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

Adopting the Elder Index as a critical benchmark figure in place of outdated, unrealistic federal guidelines would be a major step forward. 

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