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Every Californian needs a home to access basic life sustaining resources and ultimately have the opportunity to live a dignified and healthy life. Unfortunately, over 161,000 Californians were counted as experiencing homelessness in early 2020. These Californians were either residing in shelters or transitional housing — or considered unsheltered, residing on the street, in encampments, vehicles, or other places not meant for habitation. Over the same year, local homeless service providers made contact with over 246,000 individuals needing to find a home or search for other life-sustaining services.1This publication utilizes two separate sources of data for our analysis: 1) US Housing and Urban Development Point-in-Time Count which provides the number of unhoused people counted on a single night in January, and 2) the California Homeless Data Integration System through which local Continuums of Care report data to the state collected by homeless service providers throughout a year. The terms homeless and unhoused are also used interchangeably.

As people of all ages and backgrounds are pushed into homelessness for a variety of complex reasons, understanding their diverse characteristics is fundamental to effectively address their housing needs. Unhoused individuals require interventions of different types and at different scales to become and stay housed. Californians who are unhoused are more than their current living situation, and state policymakers have a responsibility to support all Californians and end homelessness across the state.

1. Homelessness is temporary for most who experience it, but some face long-term, chronic homelessness

Most unhoused individuals experience relatively short-term homelessness (68%). But nearly a third (32%) experience chronic homelessness exacerbated by a disability. Generally, families and individuals are considered unhoused if they do not have a fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence — for example, if they are living in a shelter or places not meant for habitation. Unhoused individuals are considered chronically homeless if they have a long-standing disability that significantly impedes their ability to live independently and have been unhoused continuously for a year or on at least four occasions within a three-year period. Evidence-based effective strategies, such as supportive housing that combines robust housing interventions with wrap-around supportive services, are needed to help people who are chronically homeless. As for the majority of unhoused Californians who experience short-term homelessness and have extremely low incomes, deeply affordable permanent housing is needed.

2. Unhoused Californians are primarily single adults, with a smaller share of families with children and unaccompanied youth

Adults not with children make up 77% of the people experiencing homelessness in California at a point in time, followed by families with children (14%) and unaccompanied youth (9%, including parenting youth and their children). Adults (aged 25 and over) in households not with children include sole individuals, couples, and groups of adults.2In the data presented here, “adults not with children” excludes young adults aged 18 to 24 who are only with other individuals under age 25 (and so are considered “unaccompanied youth”). “Adults not with children” includes a small number of young people aged 18 to 24 who are accompanied by adults aged 25 or older. They are particularly vulnerable to experiencing severe housing insecurity since they do not often qualify for many social safety net programs or are only eligible for short-term, small sum assistance. Unhoused families with children often fall into homelessness because of the lack of affordable housing and compounding economic challenges. Unaccompanied youth, aged 24 and younger, include youth that left home often due to neglectful or unsafe family dynamics, including many LGBTQ+ youth and some parenting youth. Experiencing homelessness at any age causes trauma and negative health, educational, and economic outcomes, and these are especially exacerbated in children and youth.

Close attention should be placed on how many unhoused Californians fall into each of these three subpopulations of people experiencing homelessness — single adults, families with children, and unaccompanied youth — to appropriately build the capacity of housing and service system needs, especially for adults without children who represent the vast majority of individuals experiencing homelessness.

3. Racial disparities are stark within California’s homeless population

Black Californians are disproportionately represented in the unhoused population, as are American Indian or Alaska Native and Pacific Islander Californians. While Black non-Latinx Californians are only 5.5% of the state’s population, they comprised over 1 in 4 unhoused people who made contact with a homelessness service provider in the 2020-21 fiscal year. These racial disparities are linked to current and past racist policies that have created educational, housing, economic, and health barriers for people of color. Californians of color also face higher risk of housing instability and are more likely to pay unaffordable portions of their income towards rent. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic and economic crisis, people of color were concentrated in undervalued workplaces, increasing their economic instability. This includes being pushed into lower-paying occupations, being first to lose their jobs during economic downturns, and experiencing the highest rates of unemployment. Racist policies and practices have also placed Black and other communities of color at highest risk of justice system-involvement, which can cause and exacerbate the length of homelessness. Even a one-night stay in jail or prison can cause individuals to lose their employment and place their financial and housing security at risk.

More in this series

See our Q&A: Understanding Homelessness in California & What Can Be Done to learn how California can leverage its resources to ensure all Californians have a home.

4. Californians experience homelessness in every county throughout the state, with the most residing in Los Angeles County

Homelessness is a statewide problem that affects Californians in every county throughout the state — rural, suburban, and urban alike. In January 2020, the Los Angeles and South Coast region (51.3%) and the San Francisco Bay Area (21.7%) had the highest shares of unhoused individuals, followed by the Central Valley (7.4%). Los Angeles County specifically is home to more than 40% of unhoused Californians, based on point-in-time data. This is in part due to its dense population, high housing costs, and general lack of affordable housing. Understanding the geographic distribution of where people experiencing homelessness reside is needed to appropriately design the allocation of state funding in ways that account for the proportional share of the homeless population in each local area.

5. California’s unhoused population is aging and increasingly composed of older adults

Roughly 45% of unhoused Californians in adult-only households who came in contact with the homelessness response system in the 2020-21 fiscal year were aged 50 and older.3Data point from custom tabulations from the California Homeless Data Integration System. Financial and medical emergencies later in life can push those who were already struggling to make ends meet into homelessness. Challenges in accessing support and social safety net programs for older adults in crisis and inadequate benefit amounts are also a driving factor. Older adults are more likely to have underlying health conditions and disabilities that may be exacerbated by the additional stressors of being unhoused. Experiencing homelessness is already tied to severe health declines as research shows unhoused adults develop similar rates of geriatric conditions as housed adults who are 20 years older. The distinctive circumstances older adults face will require more assistive services to obtain and maintain housing. Due to this, these Californians have significant implications for current homeless intervention practices as specific service needs should be integrated with other service systems and funding sources.


Lifting all Californians out of homelessness is possible. However, this cannot be done without understanding the diverse needs and housing support required for each distinct group of Californians who are unhoused. Interventions must also focus on overrepresented Californians, including people of color and single adults who comprise the majority of the homeless population. The challenges unhoused individuals face are not theirs alone as severe shortages of affordable housing, stagnating wages, disinvestment in mental health services, and historical and current racist policies and practices that touch on every aspect of life in California further exacerbate homelessness across communities. And while recent state budgets have included significant funding for various homeless-related services and programs, there is still a need for more investments, capacity building, and tailored interventions.

Ending homelessness through effective and respectful practices has proven to be possible through evidence-based approaches supported by sufficient ongoing funding, and it fundamentally begins with housing. By understanding the needs of unhoused Californians and focusing on solutions that work, state policymakers have the opportunity to leverage our resources to ensure all Californians have access to a home.

Support for this report was provided by the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation.

  • 1
    This publication utilizes two separate sources of data for our analysis: 1) US Housing and Urban Development Point-in-Time Count which provides the number of unhoused people counted on a single night in January, and 2) the California Homeless Data Integration System through which local Continuums of Care report data to the state collected by homeless service providers throughout a year. The terms homeless and unhoused are also used interchangeably.
  • 2
    In the data presented here, “adults not with children” excludes young adults aged 18 to 24 who are only with other individuals under age 25 (and so are considered “unaccompanied youth”). “Adults not with children” includes a small number of young people aged 18 to 24 who are accompanied by adults aged 25 or older.
  • 3
    Data point from custom tabulations from the California Homeless Data Integration System.

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Having a place to call home is the most basic foundation for health and well-being no matter one’s age, gender, race, or zip code. But many thousands of individuals in California each year experience homelessness and its destructive effects. Polling shows that Californians rank homelessness as one of the most serious challenges facing the state, and policymakers have paid increasing attention to this issue in recent years. Understanding the scale, impact, and drivers of homelessness in California can help guide effective policy solutions and action to end this crisis.

How does homelessness affect the people who experience it?

Homelessness has devastating effects on the individuals who experience it because having a home is a basic necessity to maintain health, work, school, and dignified living conditions. Lack of stable housing seriously disrupts individuals’ ability to keep a job or get a job or to make sure that children are able to attend and focus on school. Homelessness exposes individuals to serious health risks and makes it difficult to take care of one’s health and access health care,  and therefore homelessness can exacerbate chronic or acute health conditions. In fact, adults experiencing homelessness often have health problems and difficulty with daily living activities that are more typical of people 20 years older. Unhoused individuals have also faced serious health risks during the COVID-19 pandemic.

This devastation to people’s lives is why homelessness in California is a crisis that requires urgent attention by federal, state, and local leaders.

The stress of homelessness can also seriously harm individuals’ mental well-being. Research shows that the trauma of experiencing homelessness can cause people to develop mental health problems for the first time and can worsen existing behavioral health challenges. Longer time spent without a home is linked to higher levels of mental distress and more damage from coping behaviors like substance use.

This devastation to people’s lives is why homelessness in California is a crisis that requires urgent attention by federal, state, and local leaders.

How many people in California experience homelessness?

When Californians experience homelessness, urgent action is needed, because no one should be without a home. According to the most recent point-in-time data, as of January 2020 there were 161,548 people in California experiencing homelessness on a given night. The majority of these individuals – about 70% – were unsheltered, meaning that they were living on the street, in their vehicle, or in other places not meant to serve as homes. 
Another way to understand how many Californians experience homelessness is to count how many people received homelessness services (like shelter or outreach) over the course of a full year. Data from calendar year 2020 show that more than 245,000 homeless individuals across the state received some kind of services during the year. This number is larger than the point-in-time number because many people who fall into homelessness at some time during the year will return to stable housing relatively quickly, and the point-in-time count only captures the number of individuals experiencing homelessness on one night of the year.

Who experiences homelessness in California?

People of all ages and backgrounds fall into homelessness, and Californians experience homelessness in every county of the state. The majority of unhoused individuals are single adults, but an important share are also families with children and unaccompanied youth. A substantial share of single adults experiencing homelessness in California are older adults.

There are deep racial inequities in who experiences homelessness in California, with individuals who are Black facing a greatly disproportionate risk of homelessness, as well as American Indian or Alaska Native and Pacific Islander individuals – reflecting the effects of structural racism and inequitable treatment and access to opportunities in education, employment, health, the justice system, and other domains. In terms of gender, the majority of unhoused Californians are male. Individuals who identify as transgender or gender-nonconforming are more likely to experience unsheltered homelessness. Among youth, those who identify as LGBTQ+ are especially likely to experience homelessness, in many cases as a direct result of family rejection of their gender identity or sexual orientation. 

MORE in this series

See our 5 Facts: Who is Experiencing Homelessness in California? to learn more about California’s diverse unhoused population.

What are the key drivers of homelessness in California?

Many systemic challenges rooted in classism, racism, and sexism that harm individuals and families put people at greater risk of becoming homeless at some point in their lifetime.

The severe shortage of affordable housing – particularly housing that is affordable to people with the lowest incomes – is the number-one driver of California’s homelessness crisis. For Californians with the very lowest incomes – those categorized as “extremely low-income” under the definition used for most state and federal housing policies – there were only 24 housing units that were affordable and available for every 100 renter households as of 2019. Statewide, an estimated 1.2 million new affordable homes are needed by 2030 to meet the housing needs of Californians with low incomes. Because affordable housing is in such short supply in California, many renters with low incomes must pay much more than they can afford for housing, so that even a minor financial emergency can cause them to be unable to cover the rent and face the risk of eviction and homelessness. Black and Latinx renters are especially likely to face unaffordable housing costs, reflecting the effects of explicitly and implicitly racist policies and practices in housing, employment, and other arenas.

Other factors have also contributed to California’s homelessness crisis, including the decades-long trend of stagnant wages for lower-wage workers and past failure to fund adequate mental health services to meet needs in the community. The shortage of deeply affordable housing, however, is a fundamental driver of the crisis.

What public systems and supports can address the needs of people experiencing homelessness or play a role in preventing homelessness?

Many different local, state and federal public systems and services intersect with homelessness in important ways across California. 

The most recent California Poverty Measure data show that about 1 in 6 Californians did not have enough resources to meet their basic needs, reflecting the high cost of living in many parts of the state. For all individuals experiencing homelessness, public supports that help people meet basic needs are important both to prevent homelessness and to facilitate successful exits from homelessness. These include cash supports like SSI/SSP and CalWORKs, refundable tax credits like earned income tax credits (EITCs) and child tax credits, and assistance to address specific needs like CalFresh and WIC nutrition assistance and Medi-Cal health coverage.

While only a minority of unhoused individuals struggle with serious mental health or substance use disorders, behavioral health services are vital supports for maintaining stable housing over the long term for those individuals. Among youth, abusive or neglectful family situations can cause young people to leave their homes and become homeless, pointing to a role for the child welfare system in preventing and addressing youth homelessness. 

Domestic violence can also be the trigger that pushes individuals into homelessness, especially women and mothers with children. Services that directly address the experiences and needs of domestic violence survivors are important to prevent and address homelessness for these individuals. 
The justice system has an impact on many unhoused individuals as well. This is both because of laws that criminalize homelessness (like laws that make public camping punishable by citation or arrest) and because individuals who have a conviction record or are reentering the community after incarceration face daunting barriers to securing and maintaining stable housing. These factors compound challenges in helping individuals find safe, affordable housing.

What are effective, evidence-based ways to address homelessness? 

Extensive research shows there are several evidence-based approaches that are effective in helping people successfully exit homelessness and maintain stable housing. 

For all individuals experiencing homelessness, interventions that use a “housing first” approach have a strong track record of success. Housing first – as its name suggests – focuses on moving people into permanent housing as the first priority, before focusing on meeting other needs or connecting with other services. 

For the minority of individuals who are chronically homeless and have serious physical or mental health challenges, supportive housing — or permanent housing paired with case management and support services — is an approach that research shows is effective in enabling individuals to exit homelessness and achieve housing stability. About one-third of Californians experiencing homelessness on a given night are chronically homeless with serious health challenges.

Having a place to call home is the most basic foundation for health and well-being no matter one’s age, gender, race, or zip code.

Housing vouchers, shallow rental subsidies, and targeted programs for specific subpopulations  — such as veterans, homeless youth, or domestic violence survivors — are additional tools to help individuals successfully return to stable housing

Interim housing, like motel stays, emergency shelters, and tiny homes, can also be necessary short-term strategies to get people off the street so that they are not unsheltered. These options can contribute to solving homelessness if coupled with services that focus on moving individuals into permanent housing as quickly as possible.

If we know what works to address homelessness, why are there still so many Californians who are unhoused?

Effectively addressing homelessness requires a system of housing and services with enough capacity and investment to meet the needs of all Californians who are experiencing homelessness in every region of the state. Building that capacity requires investing in proven effective approaches at a scale that meets the need – and then providing reliable ongoing funding so that effective efforts can be sustained. Partnership between the state, federal, and local governments is important to mobilize the resources needed for impact at scale.

California first dedicated significant state dollars to address homelessness only a few years ago, and state investments have primarily consisted of one-time funding, at insufficient scale to fully address the challenge. The 2021-22 state budget included a multi-year commitment of $1 billion annually to support local homelessness efforts — with funds committed for two years, and intent to continue “based on performance and need.” In addition, there were significant investments in housing supports for special populations, such as families with children, and support to acquire and develop housing specifically to meet the needs of individuals experiencing homelessness. 

Maintaining and building on these 2021-22 state budget investments – to address the full scale of need – can enable California to achieve a functional end to homelessness. The experience of homelessness for Californians would then be rare, brief, and non-recurring for individuals and across communities. 

At the same time, the widespread shortage of affordable permanent housing continues to drive Californians into homelessness. As a result, it is also critical to invest in expanding the state’s supply of affordable housing, especially rental housing affordable to households with the lowest incomes. Both housing development and tenant-based rent subsidies can play a role in making more housing available that is deeply affordable.

Bottom line: Ending homelessness is possible, and there are many opportunities for the state to leverage its resources to ensure all Californians have a home.

Support for this report was provided by the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation.

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Almost 17 million Californians — 44% of all state residents — live in homes that are rented. As the economic effects of the COVID-19 pandemic have unfolded, the urgent needs of California’s renters have rightly received significant attention, including calls for eviction moratoriums, rental assistance, and production of more affordable housing. Many of the millions of workers who have lost jobs fear missing rent payments and losing a safe home for their families at a time when having a safe and stable home is especially vital for both personal health and public health. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic and recession, when the state’s economy was booming, millions of California renters struggled to afford the high cost of their housing. In the coming months, California’s local, state, and federal policymakers will have choices and decisions to make about how to address the needs of renters through proposed changes in laws and new policy proposals.

To inform these choices, this Issue Brief addresses a few key questions:

  • Why do California’s renters face an increased risk of housing instability and homelessness?
  • How do renters’ housing crises affect individuals’ health during the COVID-19 pandemic and beyond?
  • Which Californians are most likely to be renters?
  • And who are the Californians most likely to be affected by the policy choices that local, state, and federal policymakers can make for renters?

Support for this Issue Brief was provided by First 5 California.

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