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September 5, 2023

New Study Paints a Fuller Picture of Homelessness in California

Condominiums and office buildings in downtown Los Angeles, California.
A new report from the Benioff Homelessness and Housing Initiative at the University of California, San Francisco is the largest study of its kind since the 1990s and offers new insights into demographics, causes, and lived experiences of homelessness in the state.

California is home to 12 percent of the U.S. population, but 30 percent of Americans experiencing homelessness live in the state. In June 2023, the Benioff Homelessness and Housing Initiative at the University of California, San Francisco released a new report that unpacks the results of the California Statewide Study of People Experiencing Homelessness. The study is the largest of its kind since the 1990s and incorporates surveys administered to 3,200 representative participants and indepth interviews with 365 participants. Survey participants include people from all adult age groups, diverse family structures, sheltered and unsheltered individuals, and those using or not using supportive services. Broadly, the report examines the demographics of people experiencing homelessness in California, how people enter and experience homelessness, factors that block or enable a person’s return to housing, and policy recommendations.

Who Experiences Homelessness in California and Why?

Fundamentally, the risk of homelessness rises when structural conditions — such as income inequality, a lack of affordable housing options, and inadequate safety net supports — are unfavorable (as they currently are in the U.S., particularly California). When these conditions are more favorable, experiences of homelessness tend to be confined to people with significant individual risk factors.

The report offers insights into who experiences homelessness in California. Most adults experiencing homelessness are single and living without children, though many have children living separately from them. This population is also aging, with nearly half over age 50 and 41 percent having had their first experience of homelessness after age 50. In addition, most people (75 percent) experiencing homelessness in California live in the same county where they were most recently housed. One-third of study participants qualify as chronically homeless, and the median length of homelessness now approaches 2 years. Other demographic risk factors include identifying as Black, Indigenous, or belonging to a gender or sexual minority group, reflecting the ongoing role played by structural racism and other historic forms of discrimination. Finally, Californians experiencing homelessness disproportionately experience trauma, mental health conditions, incarceration, and substance use.

The Experience of Homelessness

Unsurprisingly, many people surveyed or interviewed reported high levels of stress and hopelessness during their experience of homelessness. The report provides granular information on where people stayed, physical and mental health issues and access to care, the impact of forced displacements, and experiences of violence, among other things. Nearly half of those surveyed reported their health as fair or poor, with two-thirds having at least one chronic condition. Despite these needs, homelessness is a barrier to regular access to medical care, prescription medication, and substance use treatment. Adding to the stress of homelessness, the report finds, are common experiences of discrimination (experienced by 80 percent of survey participants); physical or sexual violence (experienced by more than a third of participants), often perpetrated by strangers; and the frequent experience of having one's possessions confiscated, often including important documents or medication.

What Hinders and Helps a Return to Housing

Indepth interviews revealed a widespread belief among people experiencing homelessness that obtaining permanent housing could be a foundation for securing employment and addressing health concerns. The report concludes that the main barrier to achieving this is the high cost of housing in the state. Inadequate rental subsidies, inadequate information on accessing housing services, and worry that friends, partners, or pets would be unable to join whatever housing may be found exacerbate the affordability challenge. Survey participants, eager to access housing, responded positively to all of the hypothetical interventions proposed by researchers, saying that a "shallow subsidy" of $300-$500 per month; a large, $5,000-$10,000 one-time payment; a housing voucher; or working with a housing navigator all have the potential to help them individually reenter housing.

The report puts forth numerous policy recommendations to help address the state's high levels of homelessness in response to survey and interview results. The report recommends increasing affordable housing options for extremely low-income households. Low income levels, the report says, are both the underlying cause of homelessness and the most significant barrier to returning to housing, and the report suggests several strategies for making progress on this goal. Ultimately, finding ways to increase earned income and benefits access can help. Increased homelessness prevention measures, such as cash transfers to make up for a missed rental payment or incentives for landlords and tenants to engage in mediation to avoid eviction, are two possible avenues. Better services for people exiting homelessness are also needed, including improved housing navigation resources, increased access to physical and mental health care, and substance use treatment. Addressing structural issues, such as racial inequity or the relationship between incarceration and experiences of homelessness, are additional avenues that policymakers can consider.

This report offers a nuanced look into the lived experiences of homelessness among California adults. In centering those experiences in the study design and policy recommendations, report authors propose interventions that align with the needs and realities of those experiencing the fallout from inadequate supplies of affordable housing, critical social services, and entrenched social inequities.

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