California Homelessness Crisis: The Inextricable Link to Housing Shortages


Homelessness has reached alarming proportions in California, with thirty percent of the American homeless population and a staggering fifty percent of the unsheltered population residing in the state. This issue is a direct consequence of the housing-unaffordability crisis that has gripped California, compounded by the challenges local governments have posed in constructing new housing where it is needed most. Recent research has debunked the prevailing notion that the crisis is primarily caused by people migrating to the state for better weather or public benefits. A comprehensive study conducted by UC San Francisco provides valuable insights into the root causes of homelessness in California.

Local Origins of Homelessness: The UC San Francisco study, encompassing survey data from 3,200 homeless individuals in California and in-depth interviews with over 300 of them, revealed that the overwhelming majority of homeless people were locals. Astonishingly, 90 percent of those surveyed had lost their last housing in California, and 75 percent lost it in the same county where they were currently experiencing homelessness. Among the remaining 10 percent who had migrated, 30 percent were originally from California, and most had ties to the state in the form of family, employment, or prior residency.

The Impracticality of Migration: The claim that thousands of homeless individuals are relocating to California is rendered implausible when considering the economic and logistical challenges associated with such a move. Homelessness makes people more vulnerable, making it counterintuitive to embark on long-distance journeys. The study’s researchers took great care to ascertain the respondents’ origins without leading them to specific answers, confirming that most homeless individuals had strong connections to California and their communities.

Root Causes of Homelessness: The study pinpointed the most frequent reasons for losing housing, with a sharp focus on economic factors. Reductions in income due to unemployment or decreased work hours were the leading causes, followed by social factors such as conflict among residents and concerns about imposing on roommates or family members. In a more affordable environment, these social reasons would typically result in a simple change of address rather than homelessness.

Predictability of Homelessness: Identifying individuals at risk of homelessness in advance is a complex task, given the vast number of individuals in unstable situations. The study also highlighted the rapidity with which people lose their homes once they enter the state of homelessness. Respondents with leases reported an average notice of just ten days before losing housing, while those not on a lease had only one day on average. This limited timeframe makes it difficult for social services to intervene effectively.


Addressing the Flow of New Homeless Individuals: Preventing homelessness by focusing on individuals at risk, particularly those exiting the criminal justice system, is a vital step. The study found that 19 percent of respondents had entered homelessness directly from prison or jail, with 67 percent of these individuals already homeless when incarcerated. However, fewer than 20 percent reported receiving benefits, healthcare, or housing support upon release. This represents a clear opportunity to prevent a new wave of homeless Californians.

Challenges in Finding Housing: Regaining housing is a significant challenge for homeless individuals, with respondents reporting a median of 22 months since they last had stable housing. Housing costs posed a major obstacle, with nearly 90 percent stating that it affected their ability to escape homelessness. Additionally, many cited a lack of affordable housing near jobs, medical facilities, or their families. Respondents also encountered issues such as housing discrimination, limited support in finding suitable affordable housing, long wait times for housing, a shortage of housing vouchers, and substance abuse.

Conclusion: The homelessness crisis in California is deeply intertwined with the state’s housing shortage. It is evident that immediate intervention during the early stages of housing loss is crucial. Yet, even a well-funded homelessness apparatus that intervenes early is insufficient to eradicate homelessness because the root of the crisis is a dire lack of affordable homes.

The median price of a house holds paramount importance to someone on the brink of eviction from an overcrowded apartment shared with extended family. A housing chain links low-income, middle-income, and high-income housing, and when new market-rate units are not introduced, high-income residents crowd into older housing, driving up prices. This, in turn, forces middle-income workers into lower-income housing, resulting in a shortage of affordable homes. To combat homelessness effectively, California and other costly states must prioritize building more housing without delay, ensuring a brighter future for vulnerable families.


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