CARLSBAD — A countless number of files are kept in order of events within drawers throughout her kitchen, dining and living room, leaving a paper trail of failed rental assistance applications and ongoing checklists for her anticipated leap into homelessness.
A Carlsbad woman under the name Tina told the Coast News that after finding no help from city services, she’s looking to county streets as her home to live out her Golden Years.
Tina is not the only older adult on the brink of becoming unsheltered. Some local retirement experts believe that roughly a quarter of the San Diego area homeless population over 55 are in similar situations.
According to a 2019 report by the United Way, 23% of San Diego seniors (ages 65 plus) do not have enough income to meet basic needs, such as housing, food and medicine. As of 2019, more than 30% of the total population in San Diego County ages 45 and older live below the federal poverty line, per county data.
“The income needed to meet daily needs in San Diego County was 2.1 times more than the average Social Security Income for single older adults and 1.8 times more for older adult couples,” according to the County of San Diego’s 2021 cost of living analysis for older adults.
And so, for residents like Tina, there is a seemingly endless stream of work to be done.
“I have written down everything I have to do,” Tina said, who even prepared her small sedan for a test run at a Safe Parking Lot earlier this year, but anxiously returned home without success.
In 2019, Tina, who had been working as a caretaker, suffered a collapse and was later diagnosed with neuropathy. After her “health nosedived,” Tina said she encountered severe changes in her abilities to carry out daily tasks.
Tina was forced into retirement earlier than she anticipated. Now, she gets $971 from Social Security each month to cover her groceries, utility and medical bills, and $1,235 for rent.
Tina was 70 years old when her health began to decline. She considered herself reasonably healthy before the medical incident and sat on a moderate financial nest egg.
After eight years of living in her apartment, she had to turn to her youngest son for help.
According to Paul Downey, president and CEO of Serving Seniors, the “three-legged stool” — Social Security Income benefits, pensions and savings — was once thought to be the baseline retirement plan in the United States.
“The theory was, with all three of those things in place, someone could live a comfortable retirement life after they stopped working,” Downey said, noting pensions are typically limited to government employees and “many older adults have to dip into the life savings long before they’re actually ready to retire.”
Leaving the last leg of retirement: Social Security.
Tina was a career waitress, working hard in and out of restaurants most of her life in the United States. However, she was forced to stop working earlier than she had intended.
The European native realized it was hard to reformulate her retirement plan to avoid emptying her savings.
So, she started calling the city of Carlsbad seeking housing assistance, which has a waiting period of more than a decade. Tina said the city’s housing services suggested applying for aid in other cities and offered a list of affordable housing units in the region.
“Each of them is more expensive than where I live now,” Tina said. “I just couldn’t believe it; it makes no sense. Why would I give up this apartment and spend the money to move to one that’s more expensive? It blew my mind to tell you the truth. So this is where we’re at right now; I don’t even know if I qualify. I have not met anybody face to face. I know nothing; all I know is filling out these applications.”
Tina said she’d been continuously referred to applications for Section 8 and other affordable housing programs for two years, yet she still doesn’t know if she qualifies for housing aid.
And her son keeps paying her rent.
“I have to switch to Medicare, which is something I’ve always tried to avoid,” she said.
Frustrated and exhausted from lack of help, Tina started planning her route to becoming unsheltered earlier this year.
“I have to get either a VW bus or a little camper,” Tina said, suggesting she could live in her vehicle to avoid her children continuing to make her monthly rent payments.
She noted there’s active scouting of her building; people inquiring about vacancies at Section 8 and voucher-approved complex.
“There will be (vacancies) once I’m on the street, right? There will be an available apartment for the next homeless person, but you put me out on the street,” Tina said.
Social Security vs. Inflation
Downey said that an annual income of $12,000 or $13,000 is not an uncommon Social Security payout, which is the same as the federal poverty level. But according to county analysis, “the national average monthly Social Security Income benefit for a single older adult would not even cover the cost of housing in San Diego County.”
Social Security payments are assessed annually based on the Consumer Price Index and fluctuate with inflation. However, the catchup in payments is a severe challenge to many San Diego County seniors who depend solely on Social Security income in retirement.
According to the University of California, Los Angles Center for Health Policy Research Elder Index, the basic cost of living for someone over 65 is $2,531 per month — about $30,000 per year for a single adult. However, that was in 2019.
“The problem is the inflation is hitting them right now,” Downey said. “They won’t see an increase until January of next year on Social Security, and even that probably won’t keep up with the actual inflation rate, particularly not in places like San Diego, where rents are going through the roof.”
Tina said she’s “faced the music” and realizes her annual income is getting further from covering basic living expenses. In the last three years, her Social Security has increased by less than $100.
“I have to put my belongings in storage,” Tina said. “That’s $80 a month.”
Adapting to circumstances
Tina, a European native, intends to wean off her son’s financial assistance with her creative talents. She’s created dolls, knitted rugs and pillows, greeting cards, and other items she’ll sell at street markets.
“I have to get a mailbox because I need an address… as a resident with a Green Card, every time I move, I have to tell Homeland Security,” Tina said.
Downey said the agency was successful in working with the city of San Diego — with aims at a county directive — to include shallow rental subsidies for low-income earners.
In its annual comprehensive needs assessment, Serving Seniors released a questionnaire to those who were either currently or at risk of becoming homeless. In the most recent publication, more than half of the 400 individuals surveyed said that $300 was the difference between being housed and unhoused, and nearly three-quarters said $400.
Downey recognizes that rental subsidies are not the only answer to keeping older adults and others with low income in their homes.
So, to Tina, she’s being proactive.
“My timeline is — of course, I don’t want to be in the position where I have no money left — either by this September or next spring by spring for sure,” Tina said.