Homeless man
A homeless person in Coronado. Photo by Chris Stone

At times it might seem like San Diego is on its own in the quest to find solutions to homelessness. While the scope of the problem is greater in California than in many other states, there are dedicated people across the U.S. working hard to combat this issue, sharing what they’ve learned and highlighting resources that have proven successful. 

Last week, the National Alliance to End Homelessness, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization, invited me to share research and insights from Serving Seniors specific to the challenge of older adult homelessness at its annual conference in Washington DC.

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At Serving Seniors we share National Alliance’s focus on outcome driven solutions toward the goal of ending homelessness. The impact of programs and services must be measurable and must show they are effective in addressing the issue in realistic ways in real time. 

For the first time, the National Alliance conference was completely sold out weeks before it took place. People were eager to gather and learn what’s working, and what knowledge and tactics they could take home to their communities to effect positive changes. 

My presentation, along with colleagues from Illinois and Mississippi, was given to an overflow audience. People were literally sitting in the aisles and standing along the walls of the room. Older adult homelessness is impacting virtually every community — big and small, rural and urban — throughout the country. 

What was gratifying is the intense interest in the progress being made here in San Diego, particularly with prevention. 

Based on the groundbreaking 2021 Serving Seniors Needs Assessment, we shared what we learned about modifying the traditional approach to providing services for people experiencing homelessness to meet the realities of an aging population. In addition to any of the common challenges experienced by people who are unsheltered, older adults are more likely to have functional impairments and/or cognitive declines. 

We shared our key findings: 

  • Many older adults become homeless because they lack an economic safety net. They suffer catastrophic events with dire financial consequences and may take actions that compromise their health and safety to make ends meet.
  • Older adults often reported avoiding shelters due to safety concerns including risk of theft, physical harm, and potential exposure to substance use. 
  • Less than half (45%) of service providers surveyed receive gerontological training or are required to have knowledge of/experience with older adults. Half (53%) of service providers surveyed viewed their effectiveness in providing services to older adults as “moderately effective,” “slightly effective,” or “not effective.”
  • Interviewed older adults reported challenges with identifying and accessing services and resources. They reported struggling with technological barriers, transportation, and mobility limitations.
  • More than half (56%) of those interviewed report an additional $300 or less of monthly income would increase their rent security.

Implementation of shallow subsidy programs, where recipients receive monetary stipends as a measure to prevent rather than treat homelessness was a hot topic at the conference. The recently released UC San Francisco report covered in Times of San Diego aligns with our local findings in San Diego. 

During my DC visit, I also had the opportunity to meet with several members of the House, Senate, and their staff. The cost-effectiveness of shallow subsidies — both in preventing the human trauma of sleeping on the streets and in real dollar savings — compared to the costs of a person experiencing homelessness drew considerable interest. This interest came from both sides of the aisle, giving hope that it might become a reality in time.

In the past year at the urging of Serving Seniors, both the San Diego County Board of Supervisors and the San Diego City Council, on bipartisan basis, 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 between $2,500 to $6,000 per month depending on the type of services offered. 

Non-congregate shelters like the Seniors Landing Bridge Shelter operated by Serving Seniors in partnership with the city of San Diego presents another practical model for older adults, repurposing a motel as a one-stop facility providing supportive services to access resources available to older adults through Social Security and the Veterans Administration, along with local support to find a permanent housing situation. 

In addition, we are working along with the Regional Task Force on Homelessness and the County’s Aging and Independence Services to provide shelter staff and social services personnel who work with older adults experiencing homelessness the education they need to best serve the older adult population. 

San Diego is out in front of the growing recognition of the proactive, practical tools we can implement today at relatively low cost, while working on the longer term solution: affordable housing. 

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