California's homelessness crisis - and possible solutions - explained
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 150,000 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.
President Donald Trump has wielded the state's homelessness woes as a political cudgel, excoriating Gov. Gavin Newsom and the state's progressive policies for allowing the country's “best highways, our best streets, our best entrances to buildings” to be blockaded by people without homes. In a Christmas Day tweet, Trump repeated his threats of federal intervention if the state fails to fix the problem.
Here's what you need to know about California's homelessness crisis - including possible solutions.
At last official count 151,278 individuals are homeless in California, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. That's the highest number since at least 2007, and represents a nearly 17% uptick since 2018. The number of unsheltered Californians - living on the streets or in cars - has surged the past year.
Official homelessness statistics mostly come from “one night counts” - a volunteer-led snapshot of the number of people experiencing homelessness one night in January. 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 9 Americans lives in California, roughly 1 in 4 homeless Americans lives here. New York and Hawaii have slightly higher per capita rates of homelessness, but California has the largest proportion of people living without shelter. 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.
And although states such as Texas and New York have seen a slight uptick in their homeless counts since last year, California saw the largest proportional swell of any state besides New Mexico. The Trump administration is quick to point out that the country would have seen an overall decline in homelessness if California and Oregon were excluded from the count.
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 26% of Californians experiencing homelessness fit that definition, or some 34,000 people.
African-Americans are disproportionately found on California's streets - roughly 30% of the state's unhoused population is black, according to HUD. Several Bay Area regions, including San Francisco and Marin County, have some of the highest rates of black homelessness in the country. A legacy of racial discrimination in rental housing, higher rates of poverty among black families, and overrepresentation in the state's incarceration and child welfare systems all contribute to the high numbers of African-Americans experiencing homelessness.
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.
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.