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California’s most vexing issue is also its most shameful: the large and rising number of residents who lack a safe place to call home. In a state with vast amounts of wealth, more than 160,000 of its residents sleep in shelters, cars, or on the street.

The United Nations compared the tent encampments of San Francisco to the slums of New Delhi and Mexico City. Nearly 5,000 people live in the half square mile of Los Angeles’ Skid Row. And while the problem is most acute in California’s urban centers, homelessness is now a common fixture in many of the state’s suburbs and rural towns. State and local officials have pledged billions in recent years to help, but voters remain frustrated by a lack of visible progress.

During the campaign before the Sept. 14 recall election for Gov. Gavin Newsom, his challengers wielded the state’s homelessness woes as a political cudgel, pointing to the homeless population growth of nearly 25% under Newsom. The rise hasn’t been lost on voters. A recent poll conducted by the Los Angeles Business Council Institute and the Los Angeles Times found 94% of voters consider homelessness as a serious or very serious problem.

On Jan. 7, all Republicans in the Legislature called for a special session focused on the homelessness crisis. In a letter to the governor, they say the state has spent billions but the problem is only getting worse.

“We have been wrestling with this problem for decades now, and it always seems to get worse,” Sen. Patricia Bates of Laguna Niguel said in a statement. “It’s time for real results, most of all for the countless homeless people suffering in our neighborhoods and communities. A Special Session will bring needed focus. We can, and must, do better.”

Here’s what you need to know about California’s homelessness crisis — including possible solutions.

How many people are homeless?

The last official tally of people living on the street was last taken in January 2020 — before COVID-19 ravaged the economy — and showed 161,548 people experiencing homelessness in California, with the biggest concentration in Los Angeles. The January 2021 count was postponed due to COVID-19, but is expected to take place again in 2022.

Those numbers should be taken with a grain of salt, as they’re gathered on a single cold night in January by volunteers to provide a snapshot of homelessness. Experts say this method likely underestimates the unsheltered, and doesn’t capture the total number of people who fall into homelessness over the course of a year, which could be two or three times higher.

It’s not surprising that California, the largest state, has the biggest homeless population in the country. But while about 1 in 8 Americans lives in California, more than 1 in 4 homeless Americans live here. New York and Hawaii have slightly higher per capita rates of homelessness, but California has the largest proportion of people living without shelter – about 70% of homeless people here reside outdoors. That means the state’s homeless population is far more visible than in other places, and more vulnerable to the illness, violence and death that accompany living on the street. California also saw the largest increase in homelessness of any state in 2020, a 6.8% jump.

Who's accessing services?

Newly released state numbers show that throughout 2020, nearly a quarter of a million people accessed homeless services through local agencies. About 160,000 were single adults, and nearly 85,000 in families with kids. About 90,000 of those who accessed services were in Los Angeles County. That data — submitted by 42 of the 44 local agencies that manage homeless dollars and services across the state — was not previously compiled or made public. That number is dynamic, and about 50% higher than the one-night snapshot, because someone may have been homeless at the start of the year, but housed by the end — or vice versa.

But it, too, could be an undercount, as it excludes some individuals who never interacted with homeless providers and also doesn’t include survivors of domestic violence who are omitted for safety purposes, according to Ali Sutton, the state deputy secretary for homelessness.

According to the state, nearly 40% of the quarter million who accessed homeless services, moved into permanent housing in 2020 — which could mean anything from moving back in with a family member to getting their own place.

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.

Are they local, or are they coming from somewhere else?

One of the more enduring myths about California’s homeless population is that the vast majority have traveled here from other states, seeking generous government assistance and weather more hospitable to living outdoors. It’s a baseless claim perpetuated by both sides of the aisle — Gov. Newsom has made it repeatedly.

Pinning down data on this issue is a challenge. But recent data provided to the state by 42 of the 44 local agencies that manage homeless dollars shows that between 2018 and 2020, 96% of people who accessed homeless services did so in a single jurisdiction. Most of the people who moved went to neighboring counties, which the state says suggests “homelessness within California is not a problem of migration.”

Local surveys also indicate people living on the streets are typically from the surrounding neighborhood. Example: 70% of San Francisco’s homeless people were housed somewhere in the city when they lost housing; only 8% came from out of state. Three-quarters of Los Angeles County’s homeless population lived in the region before becoming homeless in 2020.

There’s little evidence to suggest undocumented immigrants constitute a large share of California’s homeless population. But those that are unhoused are particularly difficult to help. Crucial safety net resources such as Social Security, Section 8 housing vouchers and food stamps are unavailable to the undocumented, who often resist engagement with homeless services providers because of deportation fears. Language and cultural barriers also complicate re-housing efforts.

A welcome decrease in veteran and family homelessness

Military veterans, at higher risk of mental illness and substance abuse issues, make up a disproportionate share of the country’s homeless population. Roughly 11,000 veterans experience homelessness in California on any given night, about 8% of the state’s total homeless population. Most vets experiencing homelessness are over age 50, and often have significant disabilities and medical conditions that are exacerbated by precarious housing situations. Military members who experienced an episode of sexual trauma during their service are at especially high risk.

The good news is that the number of vets living on the streets has declined significantly over the past decade, both nationally and in California. Experts credit initiatives from the Obama administration incentivizing a “housing-first” approach — where permanent housing is provided without preconditions for addiction or mental health treatment — to help homeless vets. The city of Riverside succeeded in housing all 89 of its homeless veterans after adopting that approach.

While homelessness among families is also down over the last decade, that was the fastest growing group in 2020’s point in time count. About 8,000 families and 12,000 children were homeless in California last year. In Los Angeles, their number spiked by 45.7%. As a result, family homelessness was the main focus of the 2021-22 state budget; Newsom announced a goal of zero family homelessness in the next five years.

Unlike households without children, those with at least one child are far more likely to utilize emergency shelter or transitional housing. One striking statistic: Infancy is the age at which a person in the United States is most likely to be found in a homeless shelter. Several studies have found strong correlations between early childhood housing instability and behavioral and learning difficulties later in school.

High rents drive up homelessness

Mental health problems, addiction, childhood trauma, interaction with the criminal justice system and poverty all play significant roles in whether someone becomes homeless. But the primary reason? They can no longer afford rent.

For rent to be considered affordable, a person has to spend less than 30% of their income on housing costs. By that definition, none of the 1.09 million extremely low-income people in California, or those who earn less than 30% of the median income in their area, can afford to live anywhere in the state, according to a new study by the California Housing Partnership. Predictably, these financially strapped households can barely afford the state’s escalating rents, and are most at risk of falling into homelessness.

According to the study, those who make at least 50% of the median income can afford rent in three of California’s 58 counties, and those making at least 80% of the median can afford rent in 42 of 58 counties. Only those making the median and above can have their pick of any county.

Due to lack of production, California’s stock of “naturally occurring” affordable housing is dwindling, as shoddy, older apartments that used to house lower-income families are increasingly taken by higher-income tenants.

Government-subsidized housing has not filled the gap. That’s partly because doing so would be insanely expensive. The nonpartisan Legislative Analyst’s Office estimates that building new housing for every low-income Californian who needs it would cost $15 billion to $30 billion annually, That’s what the state currently spends on Medi-Cal, its massive program to provide health care to the poor, which covers a third of the state’s residents.

What about mental illness and addiction?

Advocates for homeless people are leery of casting too much blame for the state’s crisis on mental health and substance abuse issues. They argue that plenty of low-income residents in other states struggle with drug addiction and debilitating psychological conditions. They simply manage to remain off the streets because the rent is cheaper.

But recent data suggests these issues are more prevalent among people experiencing homelessness than previously reported, especially for those living on the street. A Los Angeles Times investigation found two-thirds of L.A. County’s residents living on the streets suffer from a psychological or substance abuse disorder or both, far more than what’s been reported in official statistics. 

Officially diagnosed illnesses are much lower, however. Janey Rountree, founding executive director of the California Policy Lab at UCLA, said a recent study found that 20% of 37,000 people experiencing homelessness in Los Angeles had a clinically diagnosed serious mental illness within the last 12 years, whereas about a quarter of Los Angeles’ homeless population suffers from any mental illness. 

Of the more than 248,000 people who accessed homeless services throughout 2020, 41% reported disabling conditions, which could be anything from diabetes or a broken leg to a mental health disorder, according to Ali Sutton, the state’s deputy secretary for homelessness at the California Homeless Coordinating and Financing Council.

Methamphetamine use is up across the West Coast, and is often to blame for some of the most visible episodes of homelessness seen on California streets. Unfortunately, physicians say meth addiction is confoundingly difficult to treat. While methadone is available to wean heroin addicts off of opioids, no such replacement medication exists for meth.

Worse still, meth can exacerbate existing mental illnesses. Addiction and psychological conditions are often inextricably intertwined, and present a complex case for outreach workers or (more often) law enforcement to confront. A disconcerting number of California board-and-care facilities, which have traditionally housed low-income patients with schizophrenia and other severe conditions, have shuttered in recent years.

Many have also blamed California’s conservatorship laws for making it too difficult to compel treatment for people with mental illness or drug addiction living on the street. Civil libertarians and disability rights groups argue that conservatorship —when a court-appointed official manages another person’s life, including medical decisions — should be used as sparingly as possible, as it risks violating civil liberties and is a hollow remedy given the severe shortage of actual treatment options. Under a 1967 state law known as the Lanterman-Petris-Short Act, Californians can be held for treatment against their will only if they are deemed a danger to themselves or others, or are determined to be gravely disabled. Other states such as New York do not impose such strict requirements. Candidates in California’s recall election pushed to loosen these restrictions, but were ultimately unsuccessful.

Finally there is the eternal question of cause and effect: The severe stresses people face when they lose shelter and are forced to live exposed on the streets can also wreak havoc on their mental health and lead to substance abuse.

Margot Kushel, a professor of medicine who leads the UCSF Benioff Homelessness and Housing Initiative, says there’s little evidence of correlation between mental health and homelessness. But once people are living on the street, they’re much more likely to turn to drugs or alcohol.

Other factors that cause homelessness

Survivors of domestic violence are among those at high risk of homelessness. One California study found that women reporting an episode of domestic violence were four times more likely to suffer housing instability than other women.

The formerly incarcerated — ineligible for many public housing programs and frequently a target of discrimination in the rental housing market — often take refuge in emergency shelters or on the streets. While comprehensive California data is lacking, one study by a criminal justice reform advocacy group found that people who have been in jail or prison are ten times more likely to experience homelessness than the general public.

Youth aging out of the foster care system likely constitute a significant share of the more than 11,000 homeless young adults in California. One study found 30% of former foster care children in the Midwest were homeless at least once before age 24. Lacking family support networks and often victims of childhood traumas, about 25% of California’s foster youth transitioning into adulthood live in precarious housing situations.

Emergency shelters and permanent supportive housing

California has a patchwork of government-provided housing for people experiencing homelessness. While the nomenclature varies from city to city, the two most prevalent and important categories of housing are emergency shelters and permanent supportive housing.

Emergency Shelters: These are any facilities that provide temporary shelter for people experiencing homelessness. At their most basic they are a barracks-like arrangement of cots, and provide a bed and a meal. Typically they are operated by publicly funded nonprofit and religious organizations. Many shelters bar residents from staying with partners or pets, and are often viewed by homeless people as dangerous and dirty, even compared to sleeping on the streets. A KPCC investigation of Los Angeles area shelters last year found reports of rats, bedbugs, foul odors and harassment rampant at several shelters.

But while shelter beds frequently go unused in Los Angeles County, where transportation is also a complicating factor, overall the state has a major shortage. Cities and counties across California reported last year a little more than 53,000 beds in either an emergency shelter or transitional housing — or fewer than one bed for every three people. In some areas, the ratio is as high as five people per bed; no county has at least one full bed per person.

San Francisco and Los Angeles have tried to reinvent emergency shelters, equipping them with health and social services providers who can help guide residents to more stable housing outcomes. According to city officials more than 50% of the short-term residents of San Francisco’s “navigation centers,” which are tailored to high-needs clients, are ultimately placed in housing. Emergency shelters are generally much cheaper to build than permanent supportive housing, but new projects often run into stringent community opposition. 

Permanent Supportive Housing: Homelessness experts agree that emergency shelters are mostly just a Band-Aid — permanent supportive housing is the long-term solution. Usually targeted at the chronically homeless, this offers a highly subsidized apartment paired with support services including psychological counseling, substance abuse rehab and job training. Permanent supportive housing is a pillar of the “housing first” model of ending homelessness: Individuals don’t need to quit drugs or agree to participate in any program to get a permanent roof over their head. Studies show that once placed in permanent supportive housing, residents tend to stay off the streets and out of the hospital and jail, saving taxpayers considerable expense. 

One problem: Permanent supportive housing is really expensive to build. In Los Angeles, a recent estimate from the city auditor put the median cost of building one unit at more than $530,000. A new project coming on line in San Jose is estimated to pencil out at roughly $470,000 per unit. The outrageous price tags aren’t just driven by land costs — a shortage of construction labor and prolonged city approval processes are also to blame. Cities including Oakland have recently begun buying and converting single-room occupancy hotels to sidestep prohibitively high new construction costs. 

Preventing homelessness

Many California cities have made significant strides in moving people from streets and shelters into safe, stable housing. The Los Angeles Housing Services Authority, buoyed by fresh state and local funds approved by voters, estimated that it was able to place more than 20,000 people experiencing homelessness into housing in 2019.

So why did L.A. County’s homeless population still grow by 13% between 2019 and 2020? Because an estimated 82,000 residents simultaneously lost a place to live, according to the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority. San Francisco officials say for every homeless person they house, another three fall into homelessness. Much to the chagrin of local politicians trying to prove taxpayer money is being spent effectively, new shelters and supportive housing will have trouble making a dent in visible homelessness unless the spigot is plugged in the first place.

States and local governments across the country (including California) are devoting a rising share of homelessness resources to prevention strategies. These include:

  • Eviction protections and emergency rental assistance: A statewide eviction moratorium in response to the COVID-19 pandemic banned landlords from kicking out tenants over missed rent payments. That was extended twice during 2021, in January and again in June, preventing an unknown number of displacements, while thousands still fell through the cracks. In October, eviction protections were mostly lifted, leaving a vacuum that tenant advocates worry will lead to increased homelessness. To help keep tenants housed and landlords paid, the state has been slowly distributing $5.2 billion of federal funds, prioritizing tenants earning 30% of the area median income.
  • Ongoing eviction counseling: Being evicted — forcibly removed from an apartment — can lead to devastating family housing instability. An eviction record also makes it exceedingly difficult to find rental housing. The Newsom administration set aside $51 million in this year’s budget for community-based organizations to offer eviction and foreclosure counseling, and another $80 million from federal coronavirus funds for the same purpose. But much to advocates’ chagrin, Newsom vetoed a bill that would have set up an ongoing funding stream for legal service organizations to provide this type of assistance.
  • Diversion and rapid re-housing: Quickly connecting individuals who just lost their home with a new one is one of the most cost effective ways of preventing long-term homelessness. In rapid re-housing programs, people teetering on the verge of homelessness or new to a shelter are often provided a security deposit, first month's rent (or more), and connected to a landlord with an immediate vacancy.

Law enforcement's role

Is it legal for someone to sleep on the sidewalk or other public property?

A landmark federal court decision says yes — if there aren't shelter beds available. Allowed to stand by the Supreme Court in late 2019, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in Martin vs City of Boise that ticketing, arresting or otherwise criminalizing people living outside violates constitutional protections against cruel and unusual punishment. Several California cities and counties filed amicus briefs urging the Supreme Court to reverse the decision, arguing it would hamstring efforts to clear homeless encampments that posed serious public health and safety risks.

The impact of the Boise decision remains unclear. Police departments and sheriffs still can enforce various "quality of life" ordinances, as well as bans against public defecation and drug use. Many advocates say issuing citations against these behaviors is counterproductive, because people experiencing homelessness have few resources to pay off city fines, and brief incarceration episodes only add to housing instability.

Homelessness puts enormous financial and resource strains on California police and sheriff departments. A recent audit of how Los Angeles spends homelessness dollars found that more than 50% went to law enforcement. Several police departments have created units dedicated to interacting with homeless populations, often pairing cops with social workers.

Homelessness is also cutting into transportation dollars. In the 2020-21 fiscal year, California spent about $15 million on camp cleanups, and projects to spend $36 million in the next year. Camp clearings also soared from 19 in 2020, when federal health officials advised against them during the pandemic, to 347 in 2021 by mid-October.

Experts question the effectiveness of encampment clearings, where people can lose what little belongings they still have and still not be anywhere closer to getting housed. Through a computer modeling study that did not undergo peer review, Boston researchers disbanding a homeless camp was more likely to drive up overdoses, hospitalizations and mortality. A new national study conducted by Abt Associates and commissioned by the federal government found that clearings have very high price tags, but little in the way of results.

What is the state doing about homelessness?

Gov. Gavin Newsom joins a cleanup effort in Los Angeles on May 11, 2021. Newsom proposed $12 billion in new funding to get more people experiencing homelessness in the state into housing and to "functionally end family homelessness" within five years. AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez
Gov. Gavin Newsom joins a cleanup effort in Los Angeles on May 11, 2021. Newsom proposed $12 billion in new funding to get more people experiencing homelessness in the state into housing and to "functionally end family homelessness" within five years. AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez

California spent about $13 billion over the last three years to address homelessness, with few visible results. A scathing state auditor’s report from February points to a main culprit: a lack of coordination and accountability across the complicated web of state agencies and local counties, cities and service providers.

But data from service providers across the state says more than 91,000 people moved from homelessness into permanent housing in 2020. State officials are hoping that number will be even higher in the coming years, after committing a record-breaking $12 billion in the 2021-22 budget to homelessness.

The biggest line item in the budget is Project Homekey, an initiative started during the pandemic in which local governments bought and renovated 94 hotels and motels into about 6,000 permanent housing units. Funding for that was tripled in 2021, jumping from $846 million to $2.75 billion. Another $2.2 billion over the next three years will go to create behavioral health facilities. Local jurisdictions also got $2 billion in annual funding over two years, which they will be able to spend flexibly on their specific needs.

What are other places doing successfully?

Some U.S. cities, counties and states have made enviable progress in reducing homelessness, revealing possible solutions for California. Four communities have been recognized by the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness for effectively ending chronic homelessness, meaning that any homeless person with a disability is immediately provided shelter and is able to land permanent housing within 90 days if he or she wants. Three states and 78 communities have ended veteran homelessness.

Houston has reduced homelessness by more than half, from a peak of around 8,000 in 2011 to around 3,000 in 2021, according to federal point-in-time data. The city began by bringing together more than 100 agencies, including the city of Houston, the counties, nonprofit agencies, businesses and the federal HUD. Coalition members continually update a data dashboard that tracks homeless people as they interact with shelters and services. During regular meetings, they match a list of homeless people seeking permanent supportive housing with spots. A sobriety center provides a safe place for people who are publicly intoxicated to sober up — and avoid an arrest record. Federal funding has been key to bringing thousands of new supportive housing units online: HUD nearly doubled its funding for Houston homelessness programs between 2008 and 2018, to $38.2 million

In Atlanta, a city similar in population to Sacramento or Long Beach, the homeless population has also more than halved since 2010, even as rents have raced upwards. Like Houston, Atlanta has embraced the "housing first" approach, investing public and private dollars in a growing stock of low-barrier shelter beds, rapid rehousing units and permanent supportive housing. One innovative solution: A host-family program that pairs homeless LGBTQ young adults with supportive households.

What about outside-the-box solutions?

Desperate shortages of affordable housing have led some cities to consider desperate measures. 

Take for example, a recent proposal out of Oakland, where homelessness grew 47% from 2017 to 2019. City Council President Rebecca Kaplan floated a plan to house up to 1,000 homeless residents on a cruise ship in the city’s port. Though not a novel idea — cruise ships offered emergency shelter during Hurricane Katrina — the Port of Oakland instantly dismissed the proposal as “untenable,” while Twitter users pointed out the irony of housing people in boats rather than actual homes. 

Oakland is also home to another controversial solution: move the homeless out of street encampments and into metal structures more often used as tool sheds. The city currently operates four “cabin communities,” which include electricity, security guards and supportive services. About two-thirds of residents who have been through the program have found more permanent shelter — a statistic the city calls a success. Supporters of the sheds — including Riverside Mayor Rusty Bailey, who has been sleeping in one himself to garner local support for the strategy — say that they are warmer, safer, and more humane than sleeping in tents on cement. Detractors argue that the cramped structures are a poor substitute for permanent supportive housing or building affordable apartments.

Oakland is currently operating four "shelter communities" of Tuff sheds. (Ray Chavez/Bay Area News Group)

Cities around the country have jumped on the tiny house craze, building villages of the pint-sized dwellings for the homeless. Los Angeles has piloted a program to pay homeowners to host homeless people in backyard “granny flats.” Other cities have turned to 3D-printed homes that can be turned out in 48 hours to lower the cost of building extremely-affordable units.

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Matt Levin is the data and housing dude for CalMatters. His work entails distilling complex policy topics into easily digestible charts and graphs, finding and writing original stories from data, yelling...

Jackie covered income inequity and economic survival for the The California Divide collaboration from 2019 through 2021. She was awarded a Pulitzer Prize in Explanatory Reporting in 2021 for a Reuters...

Manuela is the housing reporter for CalMatters. Her stories focus on the political dynamics and economic and racial inequities that have contributed to the housing crisis in California and its potential...