A homeless man in a Superman t-shirt sits outside of the old courthouse in downtown San Diego.
A homeless man in a Superman t-shirt sits outside of the old courthouse in downtown San Diego. Photo by Chris Stone

 Homelessness is challenging at any age. The health and social challenges specific to aging can be daunting for older adults experiencing homelessness, and those working to find solutions.

The city of San Diego is considering a proposal to combat the exploding numbers of unhoused people spilling onto the streets in tents and makeshift camps, or living in cars without access to services seek alternatives to meet the human needs, while also respecting the right of property owners and residents to their health and safety.

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One in four San Diegans currently experiencing homelessness are over age 55. It’s a significant challenge hiding in plain sight. Any proposed solutions which don’t acknowledge and accommodate this reality are doomed to fail.

As older adults experience more limitations due to aging, traditional congregate shelter environments don’t serve them. Examples include:

  • Sensitivity to mobility, incontinence, and physical limitations
  • A heightened need for safety and security
  • Provisions to manage complex health issues
  • Operational rules requiring older adults to leave shelters during the day with nowhere to go or stand-in, self-service lines
  • Staff trained to recognize and address the unique needs of older adults

Even when offered a shelter bed, which seems preferable to sleeping on the streets, older adults often decline. In a recent report by the San Diego Union-Tribune, an older woman waiting for a shelter opening had to turn it down when she learned she was assigned an upper bunk bed — one she could not physically access.

For those who are physically able, the crowding, noise, lack of privacy, and higher risk of theft or physical harm from predators keeps them away. Older women are particularly vulnerable in these settings.

When Serving Seniors conducted its 2021 Needs Assessment report, more than one third of older adults who sought shelter (36%) would prefer a shelter specifically for older adults ages 55 and over, or a shelter with a designated area for older adults. Women expressed a stronger preference for age specific shelters (41%) than men (32%). This may reflect the safety and privacy concerns shared by women experiencing homelessness.

Any effort to increase shelter capacity must make accommodations for the one in four people who need secure and ADA compliant shelter, not only for older adults but for the disabled and others with special needs.

We’re heartened by the city of San Diego’s efforts to establish much-needed solutions like the Seniors Landing Bridge Shelter, which opened earlier this year. Serving Seniors enthusiastically supports this new approach toward solving our troubling older adult homelessness crisis.

Housed in a former small motel property on Pacific Highway, this shelter is operated by Serving Seniors on behalf of the city. Residents of the 34-units at Seniors Landing Bridge Shelter have access to health resources, including mental and behavioral health services; case management and housing navigation services; daily meals; showers, restrooms, laundry services; storage for belongings; hygiene products, basic first aid supplies and cleaning supplies; telephone access and mail services; and counseling services. 

Longer-term solutions include subsidized housing at greater scale specifically geared for older adult residents such as the recently opened Harris Family Senior Residence in City Heights. Serving Seniors is looking forward to the June groundbreaking of our latest residence in Clairemont. But the lead time is daunting when solutions are needed now.

Serving Seniors has exclusively served San Diego’s low-income, older adult population for 53 years. 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. Cognitive or physical impairments and difficulty accessing services due to age-related disabilities complicate older adults’ efforts to find help.

The number of homeless adults over age 55 is projected to triple over the next decade. San Diegans should find this unacceptable. As the aging Baby Boomer generation continues to increase the percentage of older adults in the United States, homelessness in areas with high housing costs like San Diego County will grow unchecked unless we act now.  

Providing 34 new units might seem so small as to be insignificant. But I’m reminded of the parable about the starfish stranded on the beach after a storm. 

A child walks along the beach, picking up stranded starfish to return them to the ocean. The child explains to an adult she is throwing them back because if she doesn’t, they will die. When the adult points out there are hundreds of starfish and it won’t make any difference, the child picks up another starfish, and as she tossed it into the ocean, says, “I make a difference to that one.”

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