Headlines keep coming nonstop, sounding the alarm about our nation’s homelessness crisis. It’s hard not to be discouraged seeing the 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 the available housing, people who successfully find housing are replaced by an even larger number of people who find themselves newly without housing.
Serving Older Adults in San Diego
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 — and that the number of homeless adults over age 55 is projected to triple over the next decade — 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 suburban Clairemont neighborhood this year. 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 those of us concerned about this issue to have optimism moving forward in getting a handle on this human tragedy.
Serving Seniors has pressed our elected and appointed representatives to act with a sense of urgency to develop programs to address homelessness among senior adults. They are responding with initiatives that don’t require years of construction or planning.
The primary drivers of homelessness among older adults are economic and include 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. People 50 and older and adults with disabilities who are experiencing homelessness, or who are at risk of homelessness due to low incomes (20 percent or below of Area Median Income) or are paying more than 50% of their income for rent and are facing identified conditions that make them more vulnerable to homelessness.
How Targeting Funds Can Provide Immediate Help
Targeting these economic forces directly can provide immediate help to people, allowing providers to focus remaining resources on those who need more significant assistance.
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. Comparing 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 proposed monthly rental subsidy option would save thousands of dollars.
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, which would also 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 our Serving Seniors Needs Assessment. From 2017 to 2021, the number of Californians 55 and older seeking homelessness services increased at double the rate of the general population.
Impacts of Pending Legislation
The Older Adults and Adults with Disabilities Housing Stability Act (SB 37) would:
- Establish a multi-year Rent Stabilization Fund to provide a mix of shallow and deep subsidies to help older adults and people with disabilities afford fair market rate rent and transition to permanent housing assistance programs including the Housing Choice Voucher (Section 8) program.
- Encourage the California Department of Housing and Community Development to fund and work with a variety of community-based organizations who provide housing and services to older adults and people with disabilities.
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. On a practical level, SB 37 should be embraced by taxpayers asking their representatives to offer solutions to the greater number of people – and sooner rather than later.
Similar programs have proven successful in King County, Washington; Oakland, California; the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), and the Salvation Army, which has prioritized 20 percent of its funding to adults aged 55 and older.
We know that we must continue to push hard for significant increases in affordable housing, but people need help now. We have a golden opportunity to address several easily preventable problems through targeted leveraging of existing resources.
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. Americans are better than this.