By Emily Hoeven
It’s the white whale of California politicians and policymakers, the problem that only seems to intensify no matter how much attention and money are devoted to it: homelessness.
About six in 10 Californians said the homeless population has grown in their community over the past year, according to a recent Public Policy Institute of California survey. A whopping 70% of likely voters identified homelessness as a big problem — a warning sign for candidates in the Nov. 8 general election — and 14% of residents described the issue as the most important facing the state, second only to the share who chose jobs, the economy and inflation.
But do people’s perceptions square with California’s homelessness reality?
Yes, according to a new story from CalMatters housing reporter Manuela Tobias, the first to reveal a statewide snapshot of California’s homelessness crisis since the onset of the pandemic three years ago: The number of people in the Golden State without a stable place to call home has increased by at least 22,500 since 2019, to 173,800.
- See how homelessness has changed where you live: Type the name of your city into this nifty tool built by CalMatters data journalist Jeremia Kimelman, guess how much the local homeless population has grown or contracted, and discover how that squares up with official numbers.
California’s homelessness data — based on an every-other-year volunteer headcount of people sleeping on the streets and service providers’ tally of those staying in shelters — is far from perfect, Manuela notes. But here’s what we can learn from the latest figures:
- More and more Latinos are falling into homelessness. In Los Angeles, which is home to 40% of the state’s homeless population, the number of unhoused Latinos spiked by 26%. Is this “a harbinger of what increases could look like in the broader population, as some of these pandemic relief measures fade away? As eviction restrictions are rolled back?” asked Alex Visotzky, senior California Policy Fellow at the National Alliance to End Homelessness.
- More people are sleeping in shelters — but more people are also sleeping on the streets. California created more than 14,000 shelter beds between 2019 and 2021, and the number of people staying in emergency and longer-term shelters has grown 34% since 2019. But the number of unsheltered people rose 7% during the same period, to 116,600 people.
- This, despite California spending more than $14 billion to address homelessness. Critics say this is evidence that the state is mismanaging money and that California’s “Housing First” homelessness strategy isn’t working. Supporters of that approach argue that it will take time to build enough permanent, affordable housing to bring people indoors. “We have to solve this rotting core in the center of California, which is that we are a million units short of housing for extremely low-income workers,” said Margot Kushel, director of the UCSF Benioff Homelessness and Housing Initiative.
Meanwhile, here’s a closer look at a recent spate of stories in the national media about California housing and homelessness:
- “How do you tell the story of the biggest crisis on the West Coast when every typical journalistic avenue seems to have run its course?” That was the question Jay Caspian King posed — and sought to answer — in a Tuesday column in the New Yorker.
- California may be the “heartland of the housing crisis,” but the state is finally making progress on building new housing with a pile of laws that restrict local government’s ability to obstruct development, Binyamin Appelbaum argued in a Tuesday New York Times op-ed.
- Accessory dwelling units could signal the end of the American suburb as we know it — and California is leading the charge, with some 60,000 units permitted since they were legalized in 2016, M. Nolan Gray, California YIMBY’s research director, wrote Wednesday in the Atlantic.