By Paul Downey
Headlines keep coming nonstop, sounding the alarm about our nation’s homelessness problem. It’s hard not to be discouraged seeing the increasing numbers of unhoused people living in their cars, in parks, or on our streets in San Diego County. It seems as quickly as a small piece of the puzzle adds to the available housing, people who successfully find housing are replaced by an even larger number of people who find themselves newly without housing.
At Serving Seniors, a San Diego-based nonprofit offering supportive services to low income and homeless older adults, we recognize the frustration building among residents, business owners, and civic leaders struggling to comprehend the problem and develop solutions.
We feel it, too.
When we learned through our 2021 Serving Seniors Needs Assessment that one in four of our region’s adults experiencing homelessness is age 55 or 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 San Diego’s midtown City Heights neighborhood held its ribbon cutting on November 14, 2022, providing 117 apartments for older adults. Serving Seniors will break ground on the first phase of an exciting 174-unit senior housing complex in San Diego’s Clairemont neighborhood later this summer. It will also include a senior center for the community.
Yes, it takes time to guide these projects from start to finish. But there is optimism moving forward in getting a handle on this human tragedy.
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. Serving Seniors has pressed our elected and appointed representatives to act with a sense of urgency to targeting the economic forces causing older adult homelessness. By doing so, we 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 are now underway at the County of San Diego and the City of San Diego. Both 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.
The State of California is currently pursuing a similar pilot program on a larger scale. In March 2023, State Senator Anna Caballero (D-Merced) unveiled Senate Bill (SB) 37, the Older Adults and Adults with Disabilities Housing Stability Act. Like the programs underway in San Diego, it would provide shallow rental subsidies for at-risk older and disabled individuals.
In introducing the legislation, Senator Caballero pointed to the growing need for assistance for this population, citing San Diego’s Needs Assessment research. Similar programs have proven successful in Kings County, Washington; Oakland, California; the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), and the Salvation Army, which has prioritized 20% of its funding to adults age 55 and older.
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. In places like San Diego, the problem continues growing. For every 10 people who are successfully housed, 13 more people become unhoused. This is not sustainable, and it certainly not humane.
Homelessness takes a long-term toll beyond shivering on the sidewalk trying to find a safe place to sleep. It can be overwhelming to try and navigate unfamiliar bureaucracies for help. Many people who are employed or in school when they lose housing struggle to maintain their bearings – or hide their shameful circumstances. They become estranged from family and friends, and their physical and mental health suffers. Even when supportive housing is available, it takes time to secure placement.
Shallow rental subsidies can support income and buy time to find suitable rentals for permanent housing, helping individuals regain their footing and independence. It is also far more cost effective and efficient in providing prevention. Shallow rental subsidy programs should be embraced by taxpayers as both a cost effective and humane way to provide solutions to the greater number of people – and sooner rather than later.
Paul Downey is President and CEO of Serving Seniors, a San Diego nonprofit agency providing supportive services focused on keeping low-income and homeless older adults healthy and independent. The agency’s service provision model – including case management, healthcare, mental healthcare, activities and civic engagement — is a national model for older adults living in poverty.