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San Diego homelessness is still increasing. Older adults who can’t make rent are one reason why.


Several months ago, San Diego County asked if any seniors needed help making their rent. Officials had enough money for 222 people.


Nearly 10 times that many applied.


The surge in interest highlights a key part of the region’s homelessness crisis: Many elderly residents are at risk of losing, or have already lost, the roofs over their heads.


“The No. 1 need for older adults in housing is just a few hundred dollars a month,” said Melinda Forstey, chief operating officer of the nonprofit Serving Seniors. “Five hundred dollars a month would have kept the majority of the seniors from losing their housing in the first place.”


The newest data on homelessness countywide offers similarly sobering numbers.


Just last month, nearly 8,500 people who were at least 55 participated in a supportive service, according to the Regional Task Force on Homelessness. Only 190 found housing.


Overall, the number of people experiencing homelessness for the first time (nearly 1,500) again outpaced those who got shelter (about 730).


That reality has left many nonprofit and elected leaders looking for ways to keep older residents, many of whom are on fixed incomes, in their existing homes.


There were 2,197 applications for the county’s rental assistance pilot program, according to spokesperson Tim McClain.


Applicants had to meet several benchmarks, including spending most of their budgets on housing and having overall earnings that were no more than half the Area Median Income. For a person living alone, that would mean making $48,250 or less a year.


Monthly payments of $500 began for many participants in June, and officials are working with landlords for the final cohort that was selected this month, McClain wrote in an email. People came “from all areas of the county” and the program is set to last a year-and-a-half.


The city of San Diego has its own Housing Instability Prevention Program. While that rental assistance isn’t just for seniors, almost 70 percent of participants are at least 55, according to Scott Marshall, spokesperson for the San Diego Housing Commission.


“We need to expand that program,” San Diego Councilmember Stephen Whitburn said last week in an interview.


Whitburn was speaking downtown at Serving Seniors’ Gary and Mary West Center, which offers meals, dental care and other services for older residents, especially those who are low-income or homeless. Multiple tables filled up with people wanting to ask Whitburn about nearby encampments.


Several said they were concerned for their safety or were having trouble navigating sidewalks blocked with tents.


Whitburn, an architect of San Diego’s new camping ban, credited that ordinance with a recent drop in the number of people sleeping outside downtown while also voicing support for the city’s second “safe sleeping site.” Up to 800 people should soon be able to stay in 400 tents by the Naval Medical Center in Balboa Park, he said.


Officials have previously said that lot will open sometime this fall.


One attendee, 85-year-old Ted Wills, worried that some shelter beds weren’t accessible to all, especially since the camping ban took effect. Older adults have repeatedly said top bunks especially can be out of reach.


“For that enforcement to take place, it’s important to me that it be a suitable bed,” Whitburn said, “and that we provide a way for the person to get there.”


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