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

After two years of delay due to the pandemic, the 2022 Point-In-Time Count to determine the size and scope of San Diego County’s population experiencing homelessness was released this week.

The results were sadly no surprise, reporting a 10% overall increase in the homeless population. Tamera Kohler, executive director of the Regional Task Force on Homelessness, admits these numbers are likely under reported.

One in four San Diego County residents experiencing homelessness are aged 55 and older. The report also reveals 57% of seniors experiencing homelessness have a physical disability, with half of all seniors becoming homeless for the first time in 2022.

The oldest person surveyed In the 2022 count was 87 years old. I participated in the count as a volunteer and spoke with a 77-year-old man. In fact, 21 of the 25 people I personally contacted were seniors.

Despite the severity of the numbers, there’s real reason for optimism. Surprised?

My organization, Serving Seniors, has pressed our elected and appointed representatives to act with a sense of urgency to develop programs to address senior homelessness. They are responding with initiatives that don’t require years of construction or planning.

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 are the primary drivers of homelessness among older adults.

To ward off the financial distress fueling older adult homelessness, Serving Seniors’ research found a minimal amount of monthly funding would successfully prevent most economic-based homelessness — a so-called “shallow rental subsidy” approach. More than half (56%) of older adults surveyed in 2021 by Serving Seniors in the 2021 Serving Seniors Needs Assessment reported that an additional $300 or less per month would make the difference between being housed and homeless.

The shallow rental subsidy approach prevents homelessness instead of chasing solutions after the fact. This approach provides a more humane solution — and it saves money. Estimates provided by county staff for emergency shelter operating costs including services range from $2,500 to $6,000 per month depending on the type of services offered.

County Supervisors Joel Anderson and Terra Lawson-Remer swiftly recognized the potential of this approach. On Feb. 8 by a unanimous 5-0 vote, the Board of Supervisors approved creation of a shallow rental subsidy pilot program. The full proposal is due back for a vote within the next 30 days.

Shallow rental subsidy programs and other resources targeting older adult homelessness can help people quickly, allowing us to focus remaining resources on those who need more significant help. From a taxpayer perspective, shallow rental subsidies are far more cost-effective than street clean-ups.

Further, they offer a viable opportunity to help those struggling to help themselves to lift them up. From a humanitarian standpoint, Serving Seniors sees these efforts as a must.

The city of San Diego also has the potential to fund a similar program in the 2022-23 budget. Seven of nine City Councilmembers who have been made aware of a shallow rental subsidy approach have written budget memos urging Mayor Todd Gloria to include a city pilot program in his budget.

In addition, Serving Seniors is pressing decision makers and funders to create dedicated shelters for seniors which can accommodate aging and mobility issues, as well as better staff training In homelessness and aging issues, and other easily implemented accommodations in traditional support services.

At the state level, Assembly Bill 2547 would provide ongoing housing and homelessness solutions for older adults by creating a targeted housing stabilization program like the county’s shallow rental subsidy proposal.

Yes, affordable housing is the end goal, but in San Diego, development has always been a difficult proposition. People need help now. We have a golden opportunity to address several easily preventable problems through targeted leveraging of existing resources.

As the Point-in-Time Count shows, demographics are working against us. San Diegans should find this unacceptable. Homelessness in areas with high housing costs like San Diego County will grow unchecked unless we take immediate action.

Fifty years from now, we hope our successors will be celebrating the anniversary of new and effective programs eradicating homelessness in San Diego, made possible by visionary leaders.

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