Leo Haertling covers a fire from public view at an encampment in Oakland. Haertling, originally from San Diego and now a longtime Bay Area resident, is staying at the tent site as he fights a landlord from evicting him from his apartment nearby. Santiago Mejia/The Chronicle

By Mallory Moench
SF Chronicle
June 22, 2023


California’s homeless population is predominantly made up of people who lived in the state before losing their housing, with nearly half over the age of 50 and a disproportionate number who are Black and Indigenous, according to a statewide study released Tuesday.

The UCSF Benioff Homelessness and Housing Initiative conducted the study, which its authors said was the largest examination of homeless adults in nearly three decades.

More than 171,000 people experience homelessness daily in California, about twice as many as the next highest state, New York. While California is home to 12% of the overall U.S. population, it hosts 30% of the nation’s homeless population and half of its unsheltered population.

Homelessness in California results from a confluence of factors driven by high housing costs, the study found, corresponding with reports showing only 24 housing units available for every 100 extremely low-income families. The authors quoted other scholars who said finding housing is like a game of musical chairs — with not enough spots and individuals with challenges such as health conditions or exposure to structural racism less likely to win.

“We have got to bring housing costs down, and we’ve got to bring incomes up,” said Dr. Margot Kushel, the study’s principal investigator and director of UCSF’s Benioff Institute. “We need to solve the fundamental problem — the rent is just too high.”

Most participants reported a monthly household income of $960 in the six months before becoming homeless in a state where rent for a one-bedroom apartment is typically $1,640, according to Apartment List. Many explained  that a monthly rental subsidy of as little as $300 or one-time help of at least $5,000 would have prevented their homelessness, and almost all said similar support could help them find housing now.

The study was conducted at the request of California Health and Human Services Secretary Dr. Mark Ghaly using funding from itself, the California Health Care Foundation and the Blue Shield of California Foundation.

The study’s staff surveyed 3,198 participants statewide and conducted 365 in-depth interviews from October 2021 to November 2022. Researchers used statistical methods to ensure the individuals were representative of California and to calculate statewide estimates. All data is self-reported by participants.

Here are the key takeaways:

Who is homeless in California?

  • Contrary to the “myth of homeless migration,” the report said, 90% of participants lost their last housing, where they lived for at least a month, in California, and 75% still lived in the same county. Of those whose last housing was in California, the median stay was a year, with 9% living there for less than three months. A majority of participants — 66% — were born in California.
  • Nearly half of the participants were over the age of 50, with the median age 47.
  • Black and Native American groups were overrepresented, with 26% of participants reporting Black as one of their racial identities compared with 7% of the state’s population. Similarly, 12% of participants identified Native American/Alaskan Native as one of their racial identities, despite being only 3% of California’s population.

Why did they become homeless?

  • More than 1 in 5 people cited a loss of income as the main economic reason they lost their last housing. All participants were disconnected from the job market and services, although almost half were looking for work. Some participants lost their jobs after becoming homeless for reasons such as their car getting towed, Kushel said.
  • People can become homeless with very little warning: The median length of time that people had warning they would become homeless if they held a lease was 10 days, but the median amount of time for people who did not have a lease, such as staying with family, was one day.
  • Nearly 1 in 5 entered homelessness after spending at least three months in an institution, including jail, prison or a drug treatment program, and of those, few received transition services upon release.

What happens to them once they’re homeless?

  • Once homeless, more than one-third of all participants experienced physical violence and 1 in 10 experienced sexual violence. Transgender or nonbinary people were most likely to experience sexual violence (35%) followed by cisgender women (16%).
  • Two-thirds reported current mental health symptoms of depression, anxiety, trouble concentrating or remembering, or hallucinations.
  • Almost one-third regularly reported using illicit drugs. One in five who used substances reported they wanted treatment but couldn’t get it.

How can they get out of homelessness?

  • Almost everyone wanted to return to permanent housing, while the few who expressed concerns about it noted mental health issues, including PTSD, that they said would make it constraining.
  • Nearly 9 out of 10 said housing costs were the main barrier to obtaining permanent housing. Nearly half of the participants reported their credit history or prior evictions were a barrier to getting housing while 1 in 3 participants said their criminal record was a barrier to obtaining housing. Nearly half said any affordable housing was either unsafe or too far from health care providers or community.

Are there any solutions?

The study’s authors recommended policy solutions to address the issues they discovered. Those include increasing access to affordable housing for extremely poor people making less than 30% of the area median income through producing more units, expanding rental subsidies and making it easier for people with subsidies to find a place.

San Francisco, where it is expensive and time-consuming to build affordable housing, has turned to purchasing existing hotels and expanding rental vouchers and prevention, such as pitching in to pay rent to keep someone from being evicted.

The report recommended increasing access to low-barrier mental health and substance use services and staffing permanent supportive housing for formerly homeless people with the appropriate services, including intensive case managers.

A Chronicle investigation revealed that San Francisco’s permanent supportive housing is frequently underfunded, understaffed and not able to support vulnerable tenants, prompting Mayor London Breed to make investments in the program’s services.

The report also recommended helping households get employment with training, and transportation, and by expanding outreach and ensuring that  prevention and intervention had a focus on racial equity.

Many of these efforts are already underway by state and local governments.

“We are trying to do the right things, we’re just not doing enough of it,” Kushel said.


Reach Mallory Moench:
 Mallory Moench is a San Francisco City Hall reporter. She joined The San Francisco Chronicle in 2019 to report on business and has also written about wildfires, transportation and the coronavirus pandemic.
She previously covered immigration and local news for the Albany Times Union and the Alabama state legislature for the Associated Press. Before that, she freelanced with a focus on the Yemeni diaspora while studying at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism.