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key takeaway

California’s homeless population is aging rapidly, with adults 50+ making up nearly 40% of those needing shelter. Without swift and intentional policy action, California faces a future with a growing number of unhoused older adults as the state’s population ages.

Every Californian deserves an affordable, dignified, and accessible home, regardless of their age, ability, race, gender, or economic status. Yet thousands of Californians — increasingly composed of older adults age 50 and over — continue to fall into homelessness faster than our systems can house them. During the course of the 2022-23 fiscal year, local California homeless service providers made contact with over 215,000 adults without children needing to find a home or search for other life-sustaining services — and even more were likely served by the end of 2023.1Adults without children, also referred to as single adults, are categorized by the US Department of Housing and Urban Development as being age 25 and over. This includes sole individuals, adult couples with no children, groups of adults, and may capture noncustodial parents. Sole individuals ages 18 to 24 are considered unaccompanied  youth. The terms homeless and unhoused are also used interchangeably. Of these, 85,310 — nearly 40% — were adults age 50 and over. While experiencing homelessness at any age is severely destructive to an individual’s well-being, older adults are the fastest-growing population experiencing homelessness and the largest share of individuals who are encountering homelessness for the first time in their lives. Without swift and intentional policy action, California faces a future with a growing number of unhoused older adults as the state’s population ages.

Understanding the diverse characteristics, circumstances, and tailored interventions unhoused older Californians need is key to effectively addressing their housing needs and solving homelessness across the state.

“Older adults” refers to individuals who are age 50 and over. This determination was made to parallel current research on older adults at risk of or experiencing homelessness. It also acknowledges the increased physical and behavioral health vulnerabilities that are being experienced by unhoused individuals aged 50 and over which have been traditionally seen in older populations and require tailored interventions.

1. Older Californians Are a Large Share of the Unhoused Population

Unhoused Californians age 50 and over comprised 40% of adult-only households who connected with the homelessness response system in the 2022-23 fiscal year. Yet older adults account for only 34% of the state’s entire population.

Research identifies two main cohorts that are driving the growth in older adult homelessness:

Prolonged economic hardship and insufficient wages have also prevented many from building savings or retirement accounts, leading to economic insecurity among older Californians. Adults without children are also ineligible for many cash-based safety net programs as they typically target people with children.2For more on the shortfalls of safety net programs for low-income non-elderly adults see: Joseph Llobrera et al., A Frayed and Fragmented System of Supports for Low-Income Adults Without Minor Children (Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, January 28, 2021), https://www.cbpp.org/research/a-frayed-and-fragmented-system-of-supports-for-low-income-adults-without-minor-children#state-general-assistance-programs-provide-cbpp-anchor. 

Available programs often have minimal benefit amounts that are even lower for adults without dependents. Some program benefits vary by county (particularly for General Assistance/General Relief), have time restrictions, strict asset limits, and may require an age threshold or a physical/developmental disability. Nationally, inadequate rental assistance funding also prevents more than 4 in 5 low-income, non-elderly adult households without children from obtaining the support they qualify for.3General Assistance/General Relief which is a state-mandated program that counties must offer to indigent adults. Each California county administers and fully funds its own program and sets their own benefits, payment levels, and eligibility requirements. Regardless of the circumstances leading to homelessness for older adults, it is clear that there is an urgent need for amplified, targeted safety net and housing interventions at various points to ensure aging Californians can remain in their homes.

2. Stark Racial Disparities Persist in California’s Unhoused Older Adult Population

Older Black, Indigenous, and Pacific Islander Californians disproportionately experience homelessness in California. While Black Californians age 50 and older make up roughly 5.4% of the state’s population, they comprised over 1 in 4 (26%) older adults who made contact with homeless service providers in the 2022-23 fiscal year. Disparities are also evident within Indigenous and Pacific Islander communities, with Indigenous individuals being almost six times as likely and Pacific Islanders twice as likely to connect with the homelessness response system. Separate data from the state’s point-in-time counts reflect homelessness increased among Latinx Californians across the whole population, which captures older adults as well.

The stark racial disparities parallel the broader racial disparities observed in California's unhoused population, underscoring that people of color bear the disproportionate and harmful impacts of homelessness. These disparities reflect the enduring effects of intentional racist policies that created educational, housing, economic, and health barriers for people of color — all of which directly affect an individual’s ability to obtain and sustain stable housing, especially at older ages.

Racist institutionalized practices, such as redlining, government-sanctioned displacement, and predatory practices, have placed generations in positions that make it harder to obtain housing and economic security.4For more see: Danyelle Solomon, Connor Maxwell, and Abril Castro, Systemic Inequality: Displacement, Exclusion, and Segregation: How America's Housing System Undermines Wealth Building in Communities of Color (Center for American Progress, August 7, 2019),  https://www.americanprogress.org/article/systemic-inequality-displacement-exclusion-segregation/ and California Department of Justice, California Task Force to Study and Develop Reparation Proposals for African Americans, The California Reparations Report (2023), https://oag.ca.gov/ab3121/report.

Discriminatory practices have also caused Black and other communities of color to face the highest risk of justice system involvement, familial disruptions, and traumatic experiences which can cause and exacerbate homelessness throughout a lifetime.

3. Most Unhoused Older Adults Have a Disabling Condition

Most older adults experiencing homelessness reported having a disabling condition (72%) in the 2022-23 fiscal year. Disabling conditions include physical, mental, or emotional impairments that are long continuing, significantly impeding an individual’s ability to live independently, and could be improved with housing. It also captures people with developmental disabilities. Research demonstrates many unhoused individuals experience health conditions and mobility limitations prematurely, often decades before housed adults of the same age. The striking differences reflect the detrimental health effects experiencing homelessness has on the lives of Californians, especially as they age. This pivotal factor underscores the need for policy interventions to be both accessible and tailored to the diverse demographic of older adults starting at age 50.

Unhoused Californians face steep barriers to medical access, face daily safety concerns, and often have limited access to basic necessities such as consistent meals, proper medication storage, and sanitation. Even temporary homeless shelters are often not equipped to accommodate older individuals with complex medical or mobility conditions. Combined, the lack of access to care, medical support, and appropriate housing exacerbates negative health outcomes. Experiencing homelessness ultimately limits the opportunity to live a long, healthy life and reach older ages, which is reflected by higher mortality rates in unhoused populations when compared to their housed counterparts.

Ensuring older unhoused Californians with disabilities have appropriate housing and care is largely achievable through scaling supportive housing. This effective, evidence-based intervention combines robust housing interventions with wraparound supportive services to meet the medical, physical, and behavioral health needs of unhoused Californians with disabling conditions.

4. Most Unhoused Older Adults Have an Income Source  But It's Not Enough

Most unhoused older adults who made contact with homeless service providers in the 2022-23 fiscal year reported having at least one source of income. These older adults had a median total monthly income of $1,000 —  an amount that cannot cover fair market rent for a studio apartment in nearly 70% of the state’s counties, let alone other basic living expenses like food, utilities, and transportation.

The top three reported income sources were Supplemental Security Income (SSI) (median = $1,037), Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) (median = $1,040), and General Assistance (median = $221). All of which reflect the very low incomes and high rates of disabling conditions among the unhoused older adult population. Additionally, nearly 25% of individuals with an income source reported having income from work.

The limited state and federal aid available to adults without children, low-income seniors, and people with disabilities cannot cover the high cost of housing and other basic needs in California creating vulnerabilities that can lead to homelessness. Benefit amounts are insufficient and often have strict asset limits, placing Californians who depend on these supports in severe economic hardship. In 2022, only 24 housing units were affordable and available for every 100 extremely low-income renter households, which older adults on fixed incomes often fall into. The misalignment between safety net income supports and housing costs highlights the urgent need for significant investments in accessible, affordable housing and cash supports to prevent homelessness among older adults.

5. High Housing Costs Drive Homelessness Among Older Californians

The severe shortage of affordable housing in California, leading to skyrocketing housing costs, is the primary factor pushing older adults into homelessness. In 2022, over half (52%) of all older adult California renters were housing cost-burdened, paying more than 30% of their total income in rent, and nearly 1 in 3 (29%) were severely cost-burdened, paying more than 50% of their income in rent. Older Black California renters faced the highest rates, with over 60% paying unaffordable housing costs. Older Californians of color broadly are especially vulnerable to housing insecurity as they are more likely to be renters and consequently do not have home equity to potentially fall back on. Nearly half (45.7%) of older Black Californians are renters, followed by older Latinx (37.1%), other Californians of color (29.6%), and Asian Californians (26.1%).

The increased share of Californians of color in renter households reflects discriminatory policies that have perpetuated the racial wealth gap and limited access to housing and other opportunities, leading to adverse outcomes in later life. As housing costs comprise a significant portion of their income, older adult renters — especially those with low or fixed incomes — are left with fewer resources for essentials like transportation, medicine, and food. This precarious situation can be the tipping point into homelessness due to minor financial setbacks, medical expenses, or rent hikes. Ultimately, California’s housing shortage places older renters in situations where they have to pay more than they can afford, exacerbating housing and economic insecurity.

Policymakers Can Ensure All Older Adults Have a Home

Older Californians are neighbors, parents, grandparents, and invaluable members of our communities who deserve access to an affordable, accessible, and dignified place to call home, regardless of their background or ability. As state and federal policymakers consider choices that will affect California’s unhoused and vulnerable communities, it is important to understand the unique housing, economic, and health conditions older unhoused adults face. By doing so, policymakers can act on proven policies and interventions that can help solve homelessness among older adults, including:

  • Increasing affordable rental housing and supportive housing to ensure that all Californians have access to an affordable home that is designed to meet the needs of diverse types of households, including older adults, single workers, and people with disabilities.
  • Expanding and targeting additional financial support for Californians without dependents, low incomes, and disabilities through boosting Supplemental Security Income/State Supplementary Payment, General Assistance, and refundable tax credits.
  • Directing resources for rental assistance and homelessness services, including emergency and shallow rental subsidies, housing vouchers, and rapid-rehousing efforts to ensure people can remain in their homes during times of financial crisis or quickly exit homelessness.
  • Continuing to strengthen California's aging network and initiatives to connect housing and healthcare systems by leveraging efforts such as CalAIM housing supports and California’s Master Plan on Aging.
  • Protecting renters through expanding, enforcing, and funding legal aid and eviction protections.

Policymakers can work towards a California where experiencing homelessness is a brief and rare occurrence, and where everyone has a safe and stable home.

  • 1
    Adults without children, also referred to as single adults, are categorized by the US Department of Housing and Urban Development as being age 25 and over. This includes sole individuals, adult couples with no children, groups of adults, and may capture noncustodial parents. Sole individuals ages 18 to 24 are considered unaccompanied  youth. The terms homeless and unhoused are also used interchangeably.
  • 2
    For more on the shortfalls of safety net programs for low-income non-elderly adults see: Joseph Llobrera et al., A Frayed and Fragmented System of Supports for Low-Income Adults Without Minor Children (Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, January 28, 2021), https://www.cbpp.org/research/a-frayed-and-fragmented-system-of-supports-for-low-income-adults-without-minor-children#state-general-assistance-programs-provide-cbpp-anchor.
  • 3
    General Assistance/General Relief which is a state-mandated program that counties must offer to indigent adults. Each California county administers and fully funds its own program and sets their own benefits, payment levels, and eligibility requirements.
  • 4
    For more see: Danyelle Solomon, Connor Maxwell, and Abril Castro, Systemic Inequality: Displacement, Exclusion, and Segregation: How America's Housing System Undermines Wealth Building in Communities of Color (Center for American Progress, August 7, 2019),  https://www.americanprogress.org/article/systemic-inequality-displacement-exclusion-segregation/ and California Department of Justice, California Task Force to Study and Develop Reparation Proposals for African Americans, The California Reparations Report (2023), https://oag.ca.gov/ab3121/report.

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key takeaway

California voters will decide on March 5th, 2024, whether to pass Proposition 1, a two-part initiative aiming to improve access to behavioral health services. This includes funding for treatment facilities, housing support, and changes to the Mental Health Services Act.

Millions of Californians who cope with behavioral health conditions — mental illness or substance use disorders — rely on services and supports that are primarily provided by California’s 58 counties. Improving California’s behavioral health system is critical to ensure access to these services for all Californians, regardless of race, age, gender identity, sexual orientation, or county of residence.

In recent years, state policymakers have launched various initiatives to transform California’s behavioral health system with the goal of improving access for Californians. The most recent of these initiatives is Prop. 1. Last year, state policymakers passed, with strong support from Governor Gavin Newsom, Senate Bill 326 and Assembly Bill 531. Together, these bills placed Prop. 1 on the March 2024 ballot.

On March 5, 2024, California voters will vote on Prop. 1, a two-part measure that would 1) amend California’s Mental Health Services Act and 2) create a $6.38 billion general obligation bond. The bond would fund:

  • Behavioral health treatment and residential facilities,
  • Supportive housing for veterans and individuals at risk of or experiencing homelessness with behavioral health challenges.

This initiative presents beneficial aspects as well as potentially adverse consequences for Californians. This Q&A provides a high-level overview of Prop. 1, including how Californians with behavioral health conditions might be impacted by its passage as well as implications for the state budget.

Key Terms

Why Does Prop. 1 Matter for Californians?

Prop. 1 would impact how many Californians access mental health services and substance use disorder treatment in their communities. It would restructure a key funding source for county behavioral health services in ways that would increase housing supports but might adversely impact counties’ ability to provide behavioral health services.

The Mental Health Services Act (MHSA), which Prop. 1 would amend, accounts for about one-third of funding for county behavioral health services. The MHSA is essential in supporting services for Californians across different ages, addressing a spectrum of mild to severe behavioral health conditions.

Prop. 1 would also authorize a statewide bond to create mental health and substance use treatment beds, and housing with supportive services for unhoused Californians with behavioral health challenges. Increased supportive housing and access to treatment facilities is crucial for Californians. Capital funds accessed through the bond portion of Prop. 1 will slightly impact the state’s ability to make budgetary decisions year-to-year. However, the capacity of the state to issue future voter-approved bonds will decrease because California has a limited ability to finance bond measures.

Changes to the MHSA will impact a system that currently supports all Californians with behavioral health conditions. In contrast, the bond focuses on individuals with behavioral conditions who are at risk of or experiencing homelessness, which is a smaller portion of the unhoused population.

As thousands of Californians across the state experience the devastating effects of homelessness and barriers to behavioral health care, policymakers are asking Californians to consider if redirecting MHSA funds and authorizing a new general obligation bond is the right approach to addressing the state’s behavioral health and homelessness crises.

What Problem Is Prop. 1 Trying to Address?

Prop. 1 aims to support Californians who are most affected by severe behavioral health conditions (mental illness and substance use disorders) and homelessness. This initiative is designed to create designated funding for mental health services and housing or treatment units for people with behavioral health conditions who are or at risk of experiencing homelessness.

In early 2023, over 181,000 Californians were counted as experiencing homelessness — the traumatic effects of which can seriously harm individuals’ well-being. Research suggests the trauma of experiencing homelessness can cause people to develop mental health problems and worsen existing behavioral health challenges and coping behaviors like substance use.

There are data challenges in quantifying exactly how many unhoused Californians have a mental health condition or substance use disorder. The 2023 homelessness point-in-time count showed 25% of the 181,399 people experiencing homelessness in California had a severe mental illness and 24% had a substance use disorder. However, while there is likely overlap between these individuals, the full extent is not reported.

Access to mental health care and substance use disorder treatment can be challenging for Californians who are unhoused. A recent statewide study found that nearly 4 in 5 unhoused Californians surveyed reported experiencing a serious mental health condition at some point in life, and those with current mental health conditions reported limited access to treatment. Additionally, 1 in 5 unhoused Californians who reported regular substance use and wanted treatment were not able to receive it.

These challenges are compounded by California’s shortage of adult psychiatric and community residential beds, which prevents Californians with serious behavioral health conditions from accessing critical behavioral health services.

What Is the Mental Health Services Act?

In 2004, California voters approved the Mental Health Services Act (Prop. 63), which created a 1% surtax on personal incomes above $1 million to provide increased funding for mental health services. Its passage signified a commitment to improving mental health outcomes for Californians, with a focus on prevention, early intervention, and community-based care. This tax supports about one-third of the state’s public mental health system.

The Mental Health Services Act has five main goals:

How Are Mental Health Services Act Funds Used Today?

The majority of MHSA funding (95%) goes directly to counties, which have some flexibility in how to use these funds.

Under current law, a small percentage of MHSA dollars (5%) is reserved for state-level administration.

How Would Prop. 1 Change Mental Health Services Act Spending?

Prop. 1 proposes significant revisions to the Mental Health Services Act (MHSA). These include:

  • Changing its name to the Behavioral Health Services Act (BHSA),
  • Expanding its scope to encompass treatment for substance use disorders.

Additionally, it would modify how MHSA funds are allocated, and introduce changes related to oversight, accountability, and the community planning process. This overview will focus on outlining the new funding structure under Prop. 1.

Under Prop. 1, counties would continue to receive the bulk of BHSA funds (90%). However, the allocation across different spending categories would change, without an increase in revenues. Counties would allocate their BHSA funds as follows:

Prop. 1 could provide some exemptions for counties with a population of less than 200,000. In addition, during the first two years of implementation, counties might have the flexibility to transfer up to 14% of their funding between these categories, with a limit of 7% per category. However, this flexibility is still pending state approval and has not been confirmed.

Another notable change is that Prop. 1 would shift a small percentage of dollars from counties to the state (from about 5% of total MHSA funding to about 10%). This would result in about $140 million annually redirected to the state budget. However, this amount could be higher or lower depending on the total amount of revenue collected from the tax.

Prop. 1 would also revise the allocation of state-level funds:

  • At least 3% to the Department of Health Care Access and Information to implement a statewide behavioral health workforce initiative.
  • At least 4% to the California Department of Public Health for population-based mental health and substance use disorder prevention programs. A minimum of 51% of these funds must be used for programs serving Californians who are 25 years or younger.

It’s worth noting that Prop. 1 would not change the tax on people with incomes over $1 million per year. This means counties would be expected to expand their scope of services without an increase in revenue. In fact, county leaders have repeatedly raised concerns about the disruption that Prop. 1 could cause. Specifically, the MHSA restructuring could result in significantly less funding for core services, which could lead to counties:

  • Canceling contracts with community-based organizations. 
  • Closing programs that are currently serving Californians.
  • Reducing county staffing.

If passed, the exact impact of Prop. 1 will vary by county and depend on how much revenue is collected in any given year. It’s important to keep in mind that the MHSA funds services for Californians of all ages for a range of conditions — mild to moderate to severe. The restructuring of MHSA funding would target a subset of this population. Therefore, programs and services for prevention and early intervention in some counties, for instance, could experience disruptions due to the new prioritization of funding.

What Can We Expect from the Behavioral Health Infrastructure Bond?

The Behavioral Health Infrastructure Bond would create a $6.38 billion general obligation bond for:

  • Infrastructure development of treatment and residential care facilities,
  • Supportive housing units for veterans and other Californians with serious mental health conditions and substance use disorders.

These funds are estimated to create up to 4,350 housing units, with 2,350 set aside for veterans, and 6,800 mental health and substance use treatment places for an approximate total of 11,150 new behavioral health and supportive housing units statewide. An estimated 26,700 outpatient treatment slots will also be created that may serve thousands of Californians annually.

Projects funded by the Behavioral Health Infrastructure Bond will be eligible for local streamlined review processes if they meet select criteria. The bond funds will be allocated as follows:

First Look: Understanding the governor's 2024-25 state budget proposal

Learn about the key pieces of the 2024-25 California budget proposal, and explore how the governor prioritized spending and determined cuts amid a sizable projected state budget shortfall.

What Would the Infrastructure Bond Mean for the State Budget?

Under Prop. 1, the state would issue up to $6.38 billion in general obligation (GO) bonds, with the funds going toward:

  • Grants or loans for vital treatment and residential care facilities,
  • Supportive housing units.

California voters have a record of funding large infrastructure projects through bonds as it does allow the state to access impactful funding amounts that are designed to serve public interests at large over many years.

In issuing bonds, the state must repay the bond debt service (which is the principal bond amount plus interest) through General Fund dollars. The most recent cost estimate assumes a 30-year debt service resulting in projected payments of roughly $310 million per year. Under this estimate, it would cost the state approximately $9.3 billion to repay the total bond debt, not including the cost of inflation. California currently spends roughly 2.5% of the state budget on repaying various bond obligations voters have decided on in the past.

While there are ways to equitably reform the state budget’s revenue streams, policymakers must balance the yearly limited discretionary flexible dollars in the General Fund. GO bonds in essence prioritize increased debt-service payments to be drawn from the General Fund over potential ongoing or one-time funding. Repaying the bond portion of Prop. 1 is a trade-off that will slightly reduce the flexible dollars left for other vital public services that may already serve Californians with behavioral health conditions and those at risk of or experiencing homelessness. It also challenges the state’s capacity to fund future voter-approved bonds since California has limitations on financing bond measures.

Another consideration is the ongoing operating costs that will be needed to adequately sustain the facilities produced through Prop. 1. As explained above, the MHSA restructuring does designate 30% to housing interventions which includes rental and operating subsidies. The funds can presumably help sustain facilities that are projected to be secured through the bond funding. However, it is uncertain whether these funds and those from other sources will be sufficient and accessed efficiently to ensure adequate upkeep, staffing, and proper care for the Californians receiving housing and services through these projects.

The infrastructure projects funded under the bond would build on existing state programs that received one-time funding through previous budget allocations or voter-approved bonds which are close to being depleted.

How Might Californians Be Impacted by Prop. 1?

The proposal presents various promising aspects. First of all, the expansion of services to substance use disorder treatment is positive. This broadened scope recognizes that mental health challenges and substance use disorders sometimes occur together. In fact, more than 1 in 4 adults living with a serious mental illness also have a substance use disorder. This underscores the importance of providing treatment for both conditions.

Another positive aspect of this proposal is the prioritization of treatment facilities and supportive housing infrastructure for Californians at risk of or experiencing homelessness with behavioral health conditions. Due to racism, ableism, and other forms of discrimination, some Californians are more likely to experience the devastating effects of homelessness at some point in their lifetime. This disparity is particularly stark for Black, Indigenous and Pacific Islander Californians, adults without children, older adults, and transgender and other LGBTQ+ individuals.

Notably, the new investments and prioritization of funds under Prop. 1 target a small but important share of the unhoused population. The majority of unhoused Californians face short-term homelessness (61%), for which deeply affordable permanent housing is needed. For those who are chronically homeless (39%) and may have behavioral health challenges, the increased supportive housing units are crucial if they are appropriately sustained with wraparound supportive services.

One concern about Prop. 1 is the restructuring of funding under the Mental Health Services Act (MHSA). While the exact consequences of this change are not entirely clear for each county, it could have adverse effects. The MHSA has been instrumental in providing innovative, community-based services for historically underserved communities, including people of color and LGBTQ+ communities. Given that county leaders have expressed that this initiative could result in less funding for core services, Prop. 1 could negatively impact services for Californians of color and LGBTQ+ communities that are currently supported by MHSA funding.

A key flaw of this initiative is that it expands the scope of the MHSA and prioritizes funding for people who are or at risk of experiencing homelessness without increasing the tax or providing new revenue to support existing county behavioral health programs. This approach is concerning, as it redirects funds originally allocated for a specific purpose to address a different need.

What Are Supporters and Opponents Saying?

supporters

Supporters claim that Prop. 1 would prioritize existing funds and generate new funds for Californians with the most severe behavioral health needs and those living in encampments. Other supporters assert that the proposition is a beneficial component in advancing the variety of interventions needed to address California’s housing and homelessness challenges. Supporters of Prop. 1 include California Big City Mayors as well as some behavioral health and housing advocates.

opponents

Opponents, including disability rights advocates and peer support advocates, argue that Prop. 1 represents a significant regression in the treatment of mental illness and substance use disorders, likening its impact to a 50-year setback. This perspective stems from allowing funding to be used for involuntary or forced treatment facilities. Opponents also claim that Prop. 1 could result in reduced mental health services for Black, Indigenous, and other people of color and LGBTQ+ Californians.

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key takeaway

In February 2022, there were 437 unhoused Californians per 100,000 Californians statewide — the Los Angeles and South Coast region and the San Francisco Bay Area having the highest shares of unhoused individuals in California.

Having a place to call home is the most basic foundation for health and well-being no matter one’s gender, race, or zip code. But thousands of Californians in all areas of the state fall into homelessness and experience its devastating health, economic, and intrapersonal effects daily.

Homelessness in California is a statewide challenge that affects individuals in every region and county — rural, suburban, and urban alike. In February 2022, the Los Angeles and South Coast region (49.9%) and the San Francisco Bay Area (22.2%) had the highest shares of unhoused individuals, based on point-in-time data, followed by the Sacramento Region (7.2%) and the Central Valley (7.1%). Smaller but notable shares of unhoused Californians reside in the Central Coast (4.7%), Inland Empire (4.5%), Far North (4.0%), and the Sierra Nevadas (0.5%).

Higher concentrations of unhoused Californians typically reflect the denser overall populations in their respective regions. For example, Los Angeles County alone is home to more than 40% of unhoused Californians in part due to its dense population, high living costs, and insufficient affordable housing — which is the primary driver of homelessness regardless of geographical region. Regions with denser, urban populations also tend to have more robust homelessness support and delivery systems which can better track the number of unhoused residents living in sheltered and unsheltered spaces.

A map showing the share of unhoused population by state region in February 2022 where most unhoused Californians reside in Los Angles, south coast region, and the San Francisco Bay Area.

Another way to understand the magnitude of homelessness across the state is per capita — or per 100,000 Californians — by region. Homelessness per capita shows the prevalence of being unhoused at a point in time across regions with varing population sizes. For instance, per capita measures provide better insight into the magnitude of rural homelessness which can appear less notable through point-in-time counts. It also puts into perspective the number of unhoused residents in more densely populated regions where homelessness is typically more visible.

In February 2022, California had 437 unhoused people per 100,000 residents. The Far North had the highest per capita unhoused population with 647 unhoused residents per 100,000 residents in the region, followed by the Central Coast (540 per 100,000), despite these regions having among the lowest statewide shares of unhoused Californians. In contrast, the San Francisco Bay Area (503 per 100,000) and Los Angeles and the South Coast (477 per 100,000) regions rank closer to the statewide average in prevalence, despite ranking the highest by share. Homelessness was less prevalent in the Sierra Nevada, Central Valley, and the Inland Empire regions which aligned with their lower shares of unhoused Californians.

A bar chart showing unhoused Californians per 100,000 residents by region in February 2022 where California's far north region has the highest number of people experiencing homelessness per capita.

Comprehending the prevalence of homelessness, both in terms of regional share and per capita rates, is crucial to understanding how homelessness is affecting communities statewide. However, regardless of geographical region, effectively addressing homelessness requires us to continue building the capacity and resources required to meet the housing needs of Californians experiencing or at risk of homelessness.

Fundamentally this begins with deeply affordable housing, supportive services, rental assistance, and eviction prevention, all of which are evidence-based interventions the pandemic showed us state policymakers can rapidly mobilize to help people exit homelessness and stay in their housing.

Statewide planning and policy interventions need to also address the inequities among populations that disproportionately experience homelessness — within all regions of the state. These include Black, American Indian or Alaska Native, Pacific Islander, and increasingly Latinx Californians alongside adults without children, older adults, and LGBTQ+ individuals.

Above all, ending homelessness statewide is possible with persistence and sustained commitments by policymakers that represent all regions of California. By funding at-scale and permanent solutions, state leaders can ensure every Californian has a place to call home.

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key takeaway

Homelessness among Latinx Californians has increased by 22% since 2020, more than three times the overall state increase of 6.2% over the same period.

Every Californian deserves a safe and stable place to call home. Yet, more Californians are pushed into homelessness faster than our systems can house them. From 2020 to 2022, the total number of unhoused Latinx Californians increased by 22% — a trend reflected in a rise in both sheltered and unsheltered homelessness. Overall, California’s total unhoused population during the same point-in-time counts increased by 6.2%. This increase mainly reflected a rise in sheltered populations.

A column chart showing the the number of Californians experiencing homelessness at a point-in-time in 2020 and 2022 where Latinx Californians experiencing homelessness rose by 22%, which is more than three times the overall state increase.

The sharp increase in unhoused Latinx Californians likely results from the inequitable compounding effects of the pandemic which exacerbated the economic and housing insecurity many communities of color already faced. Latinx Californians experienced high rates of housing hardship and unemployment and disproportionately worked in essential, low-wage occupations.1Aureo Dias Mesquita and Sara Kimberlin, Who is Experiencing Housing Hardship in California? (California Budget & Policy Center, May 2022); Sara Kimberlin and Alissa Anderson, In Good Times and Bad, California’s Black and Latinx Workers Bear the Burden of Unemployment (California Budget & Policy Center, December 2022); Sarah Thomason and Annette Bernhardt, Front-line Essential Jobs in California: A Profile of Job and Worker Characteristics (UC Berkeley Labor Center, May 2020). They also confronted higher rates of COVID-19 infections and deaths during the first year of the pandemic, before COVID-19 vaccines and treatments were available.2Adriana Ramos-Yamamoto and Monica Davalos, Confronting Racism, Overcoming COVID-19, and Advancing Health Equity (California Budget & Policy Center, February 2021). Combined, the pandemic’s deep economic and health ramifications made families and individuals more susceptible to not being able to afford their homes.

While all unhoused populations are generally undercounted, research shows that unhoused Latinx individuals are specifically underreported due to distinctive factors. Stronger reliance on social networks, lower utilization of homeless and public services due to information and service gaps, language barriers and mistrust, and increased likelihood of residing in nontraditional homelessness spaces or overcrowded housing means they are less likely to be captured in standardized counts.3Melissa Chinchilla et al., Increasing Latino Homelessness— What’s Happening, Why, and What to Do About It (National Alliance to End Homelessness and the Homelessness Research Institute, January 2023); Melissa Chinchilla, Stemming the Rise of Latino Homelessness: Lessons From Los Angeles County (UCLA Latino Policy & Politics Initiative, 2019). Therefore, the trending increase in Latinx homelessness may signify an even larger, unseen need among this community.

As many Californians continue to struggle to stay in their homes or exit homelessness, policymakers need to keep investing in the evidence-based solutions that we know can end homelessness. These solutions require at-scale, ongoing investments in California’s homelessness response systems and expanding the stock of affordable housing. Without this, the stark racial disparities we already see in our state’s unhoused population will continue to grow alongside Californians who are pushed into homelessness daily because they cannot afford to stay in their homes.

Policy solutions should also be rooted in equitable interventions that build community trust and integrate culturally and linguistically competent practices. Ending homelessness for all Californians is possible if policymakers use the levers at their disposal to ensure everyone has a place to call home.

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