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

It would be easy to feel dismayed by the latest headlines about the seemingly unchecked growth in the number of San Diego County residents who are experiencing homelessness. Even without the data, residents and business owners see the human distress on our sidewalks and in our parks. 

My organization, Serving Seniors, specifically works to address the needs of adults 55 and older who make up one in four San Diego County residents experiencing homelessness. The oldest person surveyed in the 2022 Point in Time was 87 years old. The causes leading to their situation and their needs are far different than people 40, 50, or even 60 years younger. 

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But there’s positive news about addressing senior homelessness. On Tuesday, the Board of Supervisors will consider a pilot program providing a minimal amount of monthly funding intended to prevent most economic-based homelessness — a so-called “shallow rental subsidy” approach.

More than half of older adults surveyed 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.  

Upon learning about the results of our research one year ago, Supervisors Terra Lawson-Remer and Joel Anderson swiftly acted, and along with their colleagues directed county staff by a 5-0 vote to work with us and other experts to design a pilot program. We’re hopeful the proposed program will pass on Tuesday and be put in place within the next few months. 

If you would like to express your support for this program, click on this link and add your name to the list which will be provided to our officials.  

Even more important than the program itself, this action signals the recognition that being homeless in San Diego County over age 55 is a completely different experience than for those who are younger. 

Senior homelessness is largely a function of catastrophic events, not mental illness, or addiction. Economic forces such as insufficient retirement income, unaffordable housing options, disability, or an unexpected crisis such as job loss or serious illness are the primary drivers. Half of San Diego’s homeless seniors became homeless within the past year.  

The shallow rental subsidy approach prevents homelessness instead of chasing solutions after the fact. This solution saves money and it’s far more humane. Estimates provided by county staff for emergency shelter operating costs including services range between $2,500 to $6,000 per person each month– far more than a $300 subsidy. 

In addition, Serving Seniors is pressing decision-makers and funders to create age-friendly shelters and dedicated shelters for seniors to accommodate aging and mobility issues. The city of San Diego announced the lease of a 34-room hotel on Pacific Highway which will be converted to a non-congregate shelter to help aid people over 50 years old experiencing homelessness. This is an excellent start toward cost-effective solutions along with stabilization programs like the county’s shallow rental subsidy proposal. 

Shallow rental subsidy programs and other resources targeting older adult homelessness can help people quickly. From a taxpayer perspective, subsidies are far more cost-effective than street clean-ups. From a humanitarian standpoint, Serving Seniors sees these efforts as a must.

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

We’re encouraged by these recent developments. Long-term solutions begin with recognition of the problem, a thorough assessment of causes, and the formation of solutions targeted toward those specific causes. 

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. 

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.