Originally Published in SD Prime Magazine
In 90-degree heat on an afternoon in May, a homeless man sleeps on a brick sidewalk behind Chase Bank in Pacific Beach. His face is sunburned and cracked under grey hair and grey beard.
He is part of a growing population of senior-aged homelessness in San Diego County.
“A lot of the public doesn’t believe that there are seniors who are homeless,” said Paul Downey of Serving Seniors, an organization that provides senior care and housing in San Diego. “A lot of people are sort of incredulous when you say to them there is a significant homeless senior population, but it’s absolutely there and it’s growing.”
About 43 percent of San Diego County’s unsheltered homeless population is over the age of 50 according to the 2013 San Diego Regional Homeless Profile. The 50-59 age bracket represents the largest segment of homeless people in the county with 234 individuals. Sixty-five individuals were ages 60 and up at last count.
“The notion [is] that all homeless people are mentally ill, drug addicts or alcoholics, or all of the above,” said Downey. “Some people are, and there’s no question about that. But I think the misconception is that it’s only people who are unlike us that are homeless. It’s only those other people.”
Homeless seniors tend to be your average citizens who have suffered financial difficulties rather than addiction or mental illness as the case often is with younger demographics, according to Downey.
Take Richard Christian, 62, who until recently was living out of his 1999 Acura at a Serra Mesa gas station. He landed there after a series of setbacks that started about 10 years ago when his mother fell ill and eventually died. Before that he had been a financial-services professional for more than 13 years.
“Right around that time my mother got sick, plus I was steady then, and you know I just walked away from it,” Christian said about his former career. “Nothing about it was floating my boat. You know, in order to get product out you have to believe in what you are doing… or you can be a real good con artist.”
Christian did not anticipate the recession or the loss of his beloved dog or the stroke he would eventually have. The stroke forced him out of a night job he kept to pay bills and after a falling-out with a roommate last year he was on the street.
Today, Richard Christian lives in an eight by ten room at the Sara Frances Hometel on 10th Avenue Downtown. It was provided through the Serving Seniors’ homeless prevention program. He has a microwave, refrigerator and internet access now.
“And lots and lots of pets,” he said. “Cockroaches. I sat down to eat recently, which I don’t like to do, and I swear they were standing on their hind legs, begging.”
Christian has a good sense of humor about his life and roaches, but he showers and shaves and brushes his teeth at a 24 Hour Fitness where the showers are roach free and the lighting is good. He also works out at 24 Hour, trying to rebuild the strength he lost after the stroke.
Job prospects for Christian are practically non-existent, but he hopes to get back on his feet selling a salsa recipe he has been developing for years. He calls it Salsa Allegria Para la Raza, Joyful Salsa for the People.
“My job is finding someone that can license my recipe who is into foods,” Christian said. “Because as good as the salsa is, it could sell 100 thousand a month. But there is no way I could do, or even want to do that. Maybe I’ll get a nickel on each jar, or a dime or whatever.”
“A dime is a lot of phone calls,” he added, grinning.
Earning an income is a major hurdle for homeless seniors, and one of the major challenges for organizations that help them, said Downey.
“If you’re 35 years old and homeless, and don’t necessarily have physical or mental impediments, you can be trained. You can be trained in jobs skills and get help finding a new job,” Downey said. “It’s a little bit harder if you’re 65, 70 years old, and you might not have jobs available. You may not be able to go out and get a job in this economy or you may not be physically able to handle it.”
The weak job market is part of a perfect storm that has been brewing in San Diego for the last decade, putting many seniors between a financial rock and a hard place.
It started with the overall rapid growth of the senior population in San Diego along with the rest of the country. Then the Great Recession hit and then came the jobs crisis. Finally, the dissolution of California Redevelopment in 2012 ended a primary financial engine for affordable housing.
Using property tax revenue, California Redevelopment allocated 20 percent of its funding to affordable housing. Then the 2011 Budget Act essentially ended redevelopment and reallocated funding to local governments and to bond payments for education and other programs.
“The ultimate solution is for the governor and the legislature to figure out a way to replace what was lost when they disbanded redevelopment in this state and basically took the dollars to fund the state budget,” Downey said.
The City of San Diego has identified funding for motel vouchers that provide some housing relief, but with more strings attached and difficulty finding motels that accept them, vouchers are not as stable as redevelopment housing.
“I wish I could say that we’re going to solve the homeless problem in the next year or two years, three years,” said Greg Cox, chairman of the County Board of Supervisors. “That’s probably not going to happen realistically. But it certainly is a worthy goal to try to figure out what can we do to get people into a situation where they at least get some stable housing for some period of time to get their lives back together.”
Getting their lives back together cannot happen without services and resources in addition to stable housing, said Herb Johnson, president and CEO of San Diego Rescue Mission.
“The government is beginning to realize that you’ve gotta tack on those additional services,” Johnson Said. “I’m old enough to remember Housing First when they didn’t call it that in the 60s. I think they called it the projects. It didn’t work very well, packing a lot of poor people with no guidance and no coverage and no training and no counseling into the same housing. What you do is create bigger and better slums.”
Richard Christian now lives on services like social security and pieces his health coverage together with Medi-Cal, Indian Health Services and Veterans Affairs services.
But day-to-day Christian’s biggest challenge is dealing with isolation and boredom. His only living relative is a 74-year-old brother in Idaho. They speak by phone, but have not stood face to face since their mother died ten years ago.
“If I can find something to occupy my time with, that’s the biggest thing,” Christian said. “Not much different than regular people.”
Others suffer from depression and even post-traumatic stress symptoms as a result of living on the streets.
With more baby boomers retiring every day and less affordable housing, Downey said the population of homeless seniors will likely continue to grow.
“I think that we run the risk in the coming years where a lot people who’re in their late 50s, maybe early 60s, who got wiped out by the recession — maybe they’re back to work now, but their savings are gone,” Downey said. “A typical senior that we see is just a whisper away from ending up on the streets.”