By Dave Fidlin
As she looks in the rearview mirror of the long and winding path she has traversed — literally and figuratively — Esmeralda Sanchez is the first to admit she has encountered her share of bumpy roads.
But as she looks to the future, Sanchez, who came to San Diego early in 2018 after living in a number of other locales in the mainland U.S. and her native Puerto Rico, has one overarching goal.
“I want something stable,” Sanchez said, who is currently enrolled in Serving Seniors’ Transitional Housing Program. “When I get up in the morning, I want to have a purpose. I want to have pride in what I’m doing.”
Sanchez, who speaks openly of her past, was sexually assaulted as a child, joined a gang as she came of age and ultimately was incarcerated. In more recent times, she has grappled with homelessness. But she said she does not want her past to define her.
“Just being here at age 71 — that’s an incredible gift in and of itself,” Sanchez said. In recent months, she has been living in one of Serving Seniors’ facilities, the Sara Frances Hometel in East Village.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services designates each May as Older Adults Month. In San Diego, the campaign serves a number of purposes — including raising awareness of the growing trend of seniors winding up homeless.
There is an important statistic about San Diego’s homeless epidemic that sometimes gets lost in the shuffle, said Paul Downey, CEO and president of Serving Seniors.
Pointing to the most recent sets of numbers, Downey said about 30% of the city’s homeless population is considered an older adult — as in age 50 and up.
“I haven’t seen anything that reveals those numbers are going to go down appreciably,” Downey said. “That’s a challenge, to say the least.”
One reason, in Downey’s estimation, for the perceived burial of data is the way statistical homeless data is reported on a surface level. While youth-related statistics are broken out, the adult numbers could be lumped together without a deeper dive.
Downey said the needs of an 18-year-old homeless person are starkly different from those of a 68-year-old homeless person, even though both, technically, are adults.
“It’s a very different population and needs more spotlight on it,” Downey said of the needs of the city’s senior-age homeless community.
Sanchez and others enrolled in the Serving Seniors program are provided resources to help pave a brighter, sustainable path ahead, Downey said. He points to a 92% success rate in permanent housing as a demonstration of the program’s effectiveness.
Downey said the overwhelming majority of homeless seniors wind up in the situation because of a serious issue — usually a financial hardship.
“Something bad typically happened,” Downey said. “Something caused that tumble into homelessness, and it’s usually economic related.”
The good news, Downey said, is the program’s enrollees typically want to make meaningful changes in their lives — and do whatever is necessary to make those positive strides happen.
To that end, Serving Seniors offers up a range of services, including an assigned case manager who provides one-on-one support. Also offered up are housing, meals, health services and counseling.
As she ponders the breadth of services she has been offered throughout her stay at Sara Frances, Sanchez said she is overflowing with gratitude.
“I think that they offer an excellent service,” Sanchez said. “They do it with compassion and dignity. They are definitely in the business of helping people.”
Downey said each participant’s success is worthy of celebration. But the long — and growing — waiting list for transitional housing through the program remains a concern. In a much broader picture, so, too, is the continued need for permanent affordable housing across all age groups.
“We’ve got a couple in the pipeline that we’re working on,” Downey said when asked about additional housing units under the organization’s auspices. “We need units — we need affordable units. We need to look at affordable housing.”
Sanchez, who describes herself as an artist at heart who fully embraces the bohemian lifestyle, said she feels a renewed sense of purpose in her life as she takes steps back toward getting on her feet.
“I keep plugging along,” she said. “I’m still here, I’m still alive. I say, ‘Enjoy your life as long as you can. Do what you need to do to keep you whole.’”
— Dave Fidlin is a freelance journalist with a special affinity for San Diego and its people. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.