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

The 2023 Point-in-Time Count results released Thursday by the Regional Task Force on Homelessness weren’t unexpected, but are still daunting and disappointing.

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The 2023 data shows the number of San Diego County residents experiencing homelessness who are aged 55 and older has risen to 29% of those counted — a 25% increase from 2022. The oldest person counted was 81!

When I joined staff and volunteers with Serving Seniors who participated in the count, we observed this growth first hand, and it’s now verified by the report. Similar to last year, the shocking growth in homelessness among San Diego County residents over age 55 is a significant component of the region’s homeless problem.

This large segment of San Diego’s unhoused population needs closer examination. The causes of older adult homelessness are different from the general homeless population. The solutions required must address these differences. Serving Seniors has identified several viable solutions showing tremendous promise in addressing this challenging community issue, and there is real hope in them.

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. While it’s true that homelessness is a housing problem, this is especially acute for 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. This is the “shallow rental subsidy” approach. More than half (56%) of surveyed older adults reported that an additional $300 to $500 per month would make the difference between being housed and homeless.

In the past year at the urging of Serving Seniors, both the San Diego County Board of Supervisors and the San Diego City Council established pilot programs providing shallow rental subsidies to qualified older adults to determine the viability of this approach.

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. A shallow subsidy comes to just a tenth of that.

We remain optimistic despite the severity of the numbers. Shallow rental subsidy programs and services targeting older adult homelessness can help people quickly, allowing us to focus other resources on those who need more significant help.

Safe camping sites are currently under discussion as another tool to prevent the sprawling street tents. We’re concerned this approach doesn’t consider the needs of nearly a third of San Diego’s older adults without homes.

There are no age-friendly accommodations for disabilities or health issues due to aging. They are not required to be ADA compliant. It’s likely many older adults as well as disabled adults can’t be accommodated by these sites.

Serving Seniors calls on decision-makers and funders to create age-friendly shelters or provide dedicated areas for older adults within congregate shelters and safe camping areas. These must accommodate aging and mobility issues, provide specific staff training In homelessness and aging issues, and offer easily implemented accommodations in traditional support services to be effective.

Affordable housing is the end goal. Serving Seniors is due to break ground on a new senior housing project in Clairemont later this month, but people need help now. We have a golden opportunity to address several easily preventable problems through targeted leveraging of existing resources.

San Diegans find this situation unacceptable. Homelessness in areas with high housing costs like San Diego County will grow unchecked unless we take immediate action. Addressing the needs of older adults experiencing homelessness whose circumstances are strictly economic can be done without more intense supportive services. From a humanitarian standpoint, Serving Seniors sees these efforts as a must.

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