Can San Luis Obispo County’s housing and health care system accommodate a ‘silver tsunami’?

Published on
March 15, 2024

San Luis Obispo County’s gorgeous climate, picturesque beaches and fruitful vineyards have long been an attraction for older people with money to live out a dream retirement. However, a closer look reveals that not all seniors in San Luis Obispo County are living “the SLO life.” 

According to the most recent U.S. Census data, the county’s status as a popular retirement destination is reflected in the senior population’s larger-than-average share of the county, comprising 22.3% of San Luis Obispo County’s 282,013 residents over the age of 65. That’s more than twice the national rate of 10.5% and higher than the statewide rate of 15.2%. 

It also means more of the county’s senior population is facing the prospect of homelessness than ever before. 

The region’s historically high cost of living is largely driven by low housing inventory, high prices and perpetually rising rents. These factors have taken more of a toll on seniors than any other group since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. According to the 2022 point-in-time homeless count, adults over 65 made up 18% of the 1,448 people counted in San Luis Obispo County in 2022 — a significant increase from 8% of 1,481 people in 2019, showing the most growth of any homeless demographic. 

That problem has only worsened in the past two years, with local homeless service providers warning of a “silver tsunami” in housing and homelessness aid requests since summer 2023, as pandemic-era eviction protections and expansions in funding for services came to an end across California. 

In San Luis Obispo County, housing that is deed-restricted to serve seniors is few and far between, while forms of senior housing such as retirement communities, assisted living, nursing homes and hospice facilities are often priced far beyond the means of a fixed, Social Security-dependent income. 

According to the most recent report by the California Association of Realtors, San Luis Obispo County was the third-least affordable county in California, with only 8% of residents able to meet the minimum income of $242,800 needed to purchase a median-priced home. 

My project for the 2024 California Health Equity Fellowship will examine the factors driving the rise in homelessness among San Luis Obispo County seniors, showing the unique risks posed by homelessness to seniors. 

To do that, I will work with San Luis Obispo County homeless service providers to assemble a list of homeless survey candidates over the age of 65. I’ll do focus groups and interviews with homeless senior sources to gain a better understanding of their health experiences, with stories showing the connection between homelessness and health. Focus groups will be conducted with a mix of homeless sources, providers and local government officials to discuss the needs of the unhoused residents and how homelessness impacts their overall health and well-being. 

The project will coincide with the release of the 2024 point-in-time homeless count in late spring or early summer this year, which can provide a more up-to-date source of information on the makeup of the county’s homeless population. Having volunteered in this most recent count, it will be interesting to see if the “silver tsunami” is reflected in the most recent data. 

Answering the question of why seniors are more likely to become homelessness — as well as identifying ways in which the county and homeless service providers can improve health outcomes for this underserved population — will be critical to the success of this project.