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Homeless shelters see increase in elderly women seeking services

San Luis Obispo County homelessness prevention advocates say they’re seeing an increase in elderly people seeking their services.

Rent costs in San Luis Obispo County have increased over 50% on average since 2013, and it’s becoming increasingly difficult for the elderly—the majority on Social Security—to keep up with the rise in costs.

“All you have to do is look at the aging population here in SLO county, what they call the silver tsunami, to realize we are an aging population, and while some may be moving into the area, many people that have been here for a very long time are finding themselves displaced,” said 5 Cities Homeless Coalition founder Janna Nichols.

Nichols said she knew of one elderly woman evicted from her home because she outlived her pension. Oftentimes, Nichols said, the elderly are displaced because they have no close family to help them.

“She’s 85, she has a long history in this county, she’s always lived in this county,” Nichols said. “She’s outlived her family members, other than her elderly brother up in Oregon. And she’s alone, at 85, 86 with income around $900 dollars a month and she’s been living in a truck."

The average monthly rent for a 785-square-foot apartment in San Luis Obispo is $2,165, according to RENTcafe.com data.

The average retiree receives significantly less than that in fixed Social Security income each month. According to the Social Security Administration, in April 2020, the average payment for retired women was $1,300 dollars a month. Men receive an average of $400 more each month.

Grace McIntosh, a manager at San Luis Obispo’s 40 Prado Homeless Services Center, said she’s also seen a spike in the elderly seeking services and shelter in SLO, particularly older women.

“Many of the women’s spouses died and so they weren’t able to access the income, maybe they went through whatever meager savings they had,” McIntosh said. “Some other people, their landlords just kept raising the rent.”

Anne Wyatt is the executive director of Smart Share Housing Coalition. The organization runs three housing programs, one of which works to find homeowners who have an extra room to rent out at a low cost. Wyatt said in just over three years, the program has matched over one hundred homeowners and tenants together.

Wyatt said she recognized some older women are house-rich but cash-poor, and the homeshare program aims to bridge people together who can’t afford to rent in San Luis Obispo and people who are living alone in larger homes.

“So even though they have housing, they’re living with buckets under leaky roofs and maintenance issues that they can’t fix, and having to scrimp on food and healthcare and other necessities to pay increasing insurance and maintenance costs on their home,” said Wyatt.

Wyatt said the programs have faced some pushback occasionally.

“I think there’s a rising acknowledgement that we’re facing severe housing challenges, and I hope the tide is turning and that we’ll start to see more options,”Wyatt said. “But my experience has basically been people are genuinely in favor of [new affordable or shelter] housing, but they generally want it on someone else’s block.”

Smart Share is also pushing for more tiny homes, and Wyatt said she hopes the county will invest in affordable living opportunities like purchasing old hotels close to services, so seniors can be more connected to the community.

Nichols of the 5 Cities Homeless Coalition said solutions to homelessness are nuanced, but she thinks the county needs to provide low cost housing and the capacity to serve people until they are housed.

Michael Barros is a reporter in the KCBX Newsroom. He has a degree in journalism from California Polytechnic State University, where he spent two years reporting for the campus news outlet, Mustang Media. He spent several months as an intern for NPR's All Things Considered in Washington D.C. Michael covers breaking news for daily newscasts, and creates features for the local broadcast of All Things Considered and Morning Edition. When he's not reporting, he's probably hammocking in a forest or painting.
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