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.
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.
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.
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.