Every Californian deserves a safe and stable place to call home in order to have the opportunity to live a dignified and healthy life. Yet, over 171,000 Californians were counted as experiencing homelessness in early 2022. 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. During calendar year 2021, local homeless service providers made contact with over 270,000 individuals needing to find a home or search for other life-sustaining services — and even more were likely served in 2022.1This 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 addressing 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 persist in ending 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 (64%), but over a third (36%) experience chronic homelessness exacerbated by a disability. Individuals and families are considered homeless if they do not have a fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence — for example, if they are living in a shelter, vehicle, or other 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.
Different interventions are typically needed to ensure individuals experiencing temporary or chronic homelessness secure and remain in housing. For the majority of unhoused Californians who are experiencing short-term homelessness and have extremely low incomes, deeply affordable permanent housing is needed. For those who are chronically homeless, effective evidence-based strategies, such as supportive housing that combines robust housing interventions with wrap-around supportive services, are needed.
2. Single adults make up the vast majority of unhoused Californians, with a smaller share of families with children and unaccompanied youth
Adults not with children make up 80% of the people experiencing homelessness in California at a point in time, followed by families with children (14%) and unaccompanied youth (7%). Adults (aged 25 and over) in households not with children include sole individuals, couples, and groups of adults and can include noncustodial parents.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 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 likely to experience homelessness, and American Indian and Pacific Islander Californians are also especially affected. While Black Californians make up roughly 5% of the state’s population, they comprised over 1 in 4 unhoused people who made contact with a homelessness service provider in the 2021-22 fiscal year. Separate data from the 2022 point-in-time count show a particularly large increase in the share of Californians experiencing homelessness who are Latinx. These stark racial disparities reflect harmful current and past racist policies that have 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, affordable housing.
Long-standing racist policies and practices have also concentrated marginalized communities in undervalued occupations, increasing their economic insecurity which is a primary driver of experiencing homelessness. We see this today as people of color are largely pushed into lower-paying occupations, the first to lose their jobs during economic downturns, and experience the highest rates of unemployment. Consequently, Californians of color face higher risk of housing instability and are more likely to pay unaffordable portions of their income towards rent. Institutionalized 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.
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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 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, followed by the Sacramento Region (7.2%). 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
Over 40% of unhoused Californians in adult-only households who came in contact with the homelessness response system in the 2021-22 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 require more assistive services to obtain and maintain housing. As such, older unhoused 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 persistence and understanding the diverse needs and housing support required for each distinct group of Californians that is unhoused. Interventions must also target 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.