Who are the homeless?

Governments and services providers tend to focus their efforts on the chronically homeless — an individual with a disability who has lived without consistent shelter for a year, or has had multiple recent bouts of homelessness. About 36% of Californians experiencing homelessness fit that definition, which means the other two-thirds were newly homeless, according to federal data.

Black people are disproportionately found on California’s streets — roughly 30% of the state’s unhoused population is Black, according to HUD, compared with less than 7% of the state’s population. Why? A legacy of racial discrimination in rental housing, higher rates of poverty among Black families, the highest incidence of rent burden, and overrepresentation in the state’s incarceration and child welfare systems all contribute.

“The Black people overrepresented in the unhoused population is neither incidental or accidental,” Brandon Greene, director of the racial and economic justice program at the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California, said during a recent presentation to California’s task force on reparations.

In Los Angeles County, where Black people make up 40% of the homeless population and only 9% of the total population, the disparities extend into housing placements, according to a recent study. Using enrollment data from service providers, researchers found that between 2010 and 2019, a quarter of the Black homeless people who had been placed in permanent supportive housing in Los Angeles – subsidized housing with voluntary support services such as drug treatment – cycled back into homelessness. That’s a 39% higher incidence of relapse compared to their white peers. The study also found that Black women in particular felt unsafe and unheard and that racially discriminatory lease enforcement pushed Black residents out of the system at higher rates.

A person experiencing homelessness is about twice as likely to be male than female, and significantly more likely to be LGBTQ than in the population at large. A growing proportion are seniors, with new research indicating nearly half fall of seniors on the street fall into homelessness after age 50.