The Current Status of Older Adult Homelessness

San Diego is now the ninth most expensive city in the U.S. (2019). The Elder Index, developed by UCLA’s Center for Health Policy Research, reports 41% of San Diego’s seniors do not have enough income to pay for basic housing, food, healthcare, and transportation. Meanwhile, government housing programs are experiencing extreme waiting lists and intake tools fail to prioritize older adults. These factors, combined with San Diego’s housing crisis, are intensifying senior homelessness, as evidenced by San Diego’s most recent Point in Time Count.  

In 2020, 27% of San Diego’s unsheltered residents were 55 years and older, equating to more than 2,000 seniors living on our streets.  Within this group of older adults:

  • 88% of seniors became homeless in San Diego
  • 43% are experiencing homelessness for the first time
  • 54% are sleeping on the street or sidewalk
  • 50% are managing a chronic condition

Understanding what is driving these figures is the first and most necessary step to begin to address the unacceptable circumstance of San Diego's low-income seniors aging unsheltered or within ill-equipped facilities. While our community has uniquely identified unsheltered veterans, families, and youth, older adults continue to be grouped in with all unsheltered adults. This occurs despite research demonstrating the set and scope of factors that differentiate homeless adults over 55 from those homeless adults younger than 55 years old. These factors include:

  • Fixed incomes
  • Higher prevalence of episodic versus chronic homelessness
  • Poorer health
  • Higher vulnerability
  • Higher functional and cognitive impairments
  • Higher mortality and rates of institutionalization
  • Significant reduction in employment opportunities

Without a focused examination of and intentional response to the unique needs of older adults experiencing and/or at-risk of homelessness, it will remain difficult to maximize limited resources and to strategically attend to the fastest-growing segment of San Diego’s homeless population—aging baby boomers. 

A Continuum of Solutions

This is why Serving Seniors is helping San Diego join other thought leaders in our local community and neighboring Los Angeles and San Francisco Counties by launching our Senior Homelessness & Housing Initiative - a progressive effort to reduce senior homelessness in San Diego.  Designed with immediate and long-term impact in mind, the initiative began with a comprehensive, senior homelessness needs assessment resulting in an actionable plan that promotes:

  • More opportunities for preventing senior homelessness--including shallow subsidy programs and more affordable housing options, and 
  • The development of a senior-only homeless shelter and/or interject more appropriate accommodations for older adults living in shelters. 

For our clients, the introduction of these measures into the continuum of care would coincide with the expansion of our senior-only, transitional housing program and new affordable housing developments in the East Block and Mt. Etna communities. For the community, our hope is that by leveraging our nationally-recognized, senior services model and strategically engaging San Diego’s homeless provider network, this initiative will advance San Diego’s vision of an age-friendly community for all. 

Step 1: What Are Their Needs?

In July 2020, Serving Seniors launched the needs assessment portion of our initiative where we solicited feedback from older adults and homeless service providers. Click below to download and view the report's findings and resulting set of recommendations. 

The key objectives of the needs assessment were:

  • Provide a description of the current continuum of care delivery system for older adults experiencing and/or at risk of experiencing homelessness;
  • Present the results of the needs assessment (through a situational and environmental analysis) to identify gaps and barriers;
  • Examine data, policies, procedures, and practices used by homeless shelters, transitional, supportive housing organizations, Housing Choice Voucher (Section 8), and Low Income Public Housing programs;
  • Investigate ‘best practices’ nationally and compare and contrast to the current work in San Diego; and
  • Synthesize information learned across points 1 through 4 with the goal of developing an action plan to guide both current and future investments (including partnerships, funding, and resources) towards addressing senior homelessness in San Diego.

The goal of our needs assessment is to help inform how to approach and design a homeless system sensitive to the unique needs of older adults. Our vision for this new system includes:

  1. Policies and dedicated funding that will support homeless prevention strategies for older adults living on a fixed income.
  2. Introducing an 'elder shelter' concept into San Diego which is either the creation of a replicable model delivering an array of aging services using reserved sections of existing shelter spaces or the construction of an innovative, purpose-built shelter to house 180-240 older adults per year. (Either version will introduce a stopgap housing solution for unsheltered seniors during a time of extreme vulnerability.)  
  3. Ongoing discussions and responsive actions through partnerships, community engagement, and legislation on the issues surrounding older adult homelessness. 

Call to Action

The entire Serving Seniors’ team is pleased to have begun this journey and would like to invite your support and participation. To join us, please reach out to Christina Selder, Director of Community Engagement & Government Relations at or (619) 487-0747.