Homeless man
An older homeless person in Coronado. Photo by Chris Stone

Headlines continue to sound the alarm about San Diego County’s homelessness problem. It’s hard not to be discouraged by increasing numbers of unhoused people living in their cars, in parks, or on our streets. It seems as quickly as a small piece of the puzzle adds to our available housing, the people who successfully find housing are replaced by an even larger number of new people without housing.

At Serving Seniors, we see the frustration building among residents, business owners, and civic leaders struggling to comprehend the problem and develop solutions. When we learned through our 2021 Serving Seniors Needs Assessment that one in four of our region’s adults experiencing homelessness is aged 55 and over, we knew we needed to double down on our efforts to go beyond providing for immediate needs such as meals, social activities, and personalized case management.

In the long term, affordable housing is vital to achieving a lasting solution to older adult homelessness. It was no small celebration when our Harris Family Senior Housing in City Heights held its ribbon cutting on Nov. 14, providing 117 apartments for older adults.

In 2023, Serving Seniors will break ground on the first phase of an exciting 174-unit senior housing complex in Clairemont at Genesee Avenue and Mt. Etna Drive. It will also include a senior center for the community.

Yes, it takes time to guide these projects from start to finish. But there’s reason for optimism in 2023.

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.

Targeting the economic forces causing older adult homelessness can help people quickly, allowing us to focus remaining resources on those who need more significant help.

Two new pilot programs addressing prevention of older adult homelessness will get underway in 2023 at both the city and county levels. Both programs implement a “shallow rental subsidy” approach, using small monthly stipends to avoid evictions instead of struggling to shelter people after the fact.

Not only can this approach provide a more humane solution, but it saves money. Compare the cost of a proposed $500 monthly subsidy with emergency shelter operating costs of between $2,500 to $6,000 per person monthly, depending on the type of services offered.

Establishing small non-congregate shelters to provide temporary bridge housing shows great promise for older adults and other specific populations of people who are unable to navigate traditional congregate shelters. Serving Seniors is operating the new Senior Landing Bridge Shelter on Pacific Highway in collaboration with the city of San Diego.

This facility provides 33 rooms of stable, safe lodging for older adults experiencing homelessness who are awaiting permanent housing placement. These units are in addition to the 30 transitional units Serving Seniors’ master leases at the Sara Frances, a single-room occupancy facility located on 10th Avenue downtown.

Finally, Serving Seniors remains committed to creating a “Safe Village” tent housing site downtown for seniors on the streets. Such a site would offer a secure location with three nutritious meals daily, security and proper sanitation — restrooms, showers, and laundry.

This is a practical stopgap to humanely address older adult homelessness instead of law enforcement sweeps. While finding a location and the necessary staffing is daunting, we will not give up this effort.

We know a hard push for affordable housing is the end goal, but people need help now. We have a golden opportunity to address several easily preventable problems through targeted leveraging of existing resources.

Demographics are working against us. The number of homeless adults over age 55 is projected to triple over the next decade. It’s likely the impeding 2023 Point In Time Count on Jan. 26 will verify an increasing number of San Diegans without housing.

As their neighbors, we must take direct action. Writing letters to the editor about the need for more affordable housing — and then opposing projects in our own neighborhood — simply is not good enough. San Diegans are better than that.

Instead of looking away when you pass a person experiencing homelessness, look them in the eye, say hello, and acknowledge them as a person. That is a critical first step. Then use it as motivation to join the cause and support organizations like Serving Seniors that are working diligently to force back the rising tide of homelessness.

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