The first statewide snapshot of California's homelessness crisis since the pandemic hit reveals that the number of people without a stable place to call home increased by at least 22,500 over the past three years, to 173,800.
That's based on a CalMatters analysis of the federal government's point-in-time count, a biennial headcount of people sleeping on the streets and in shelters tallied by California cities and counties earlier this year for the first time since 2019.
Homelessness experts mostly attribute the rise to precipitous drops in earnings during the pandemic among Californians already teetering on the edge. They also point to a worsening housing affordability crisis that is decades in the making.
"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.
While homelessness grew by 15%, roughly the same pace as in recent years — something experts credit to pandemic-era safety nets like rental assistance, eviction moratoria and stimulus checks — the data also indicates the problem has gotten worse for the state's Latino population.
Critics are quick to point out the state is spending more than $14 billion on homelessness. But advocates say its response is just now beginning.
"The price tag is bigger now," said Tomiquia Moss, founder and chief executive of All Home, a San Francisco-based homeless policy organization. "Meanwhile, the inflow is killing us."
The numbers show the state's investment in shelters is bearing fruit. California created more than 14,000 shelter beds between 2019 and 2021, federal data shows. And local organizations reported this year the number of people staying in emergency and longer-stay shelters ballooned by nearly the same amount, from 42,800 to 57,200 people — a 33% increase since 2019.
But there still isn't nearly enough permanent, affordable housing to bring people indoors for good.
"Most people, most politicians, when they talk about homelessness, it's, 'We're going to build X number of shelters.' It's shelter, shelter, shelter," said Christopher Weare, president of the Center for Homeless Inquiries. "Well, all of this construction of shelters doesn't really change the scope of the problem."
Meanwhile, the unsheltered count, or the number of people staying in tents, tarps, cars and other spaces unfit for human habitation, grew by about 7% between 2019 and 2022, to 116,600 people. That's a bump, but perhaps not reflective of the growing palpability of the crisis that dominates local headlines, political debates and neighborhood discussions.
Can we trust the numbers?
The unsheltered numbers are collected by volunteers every other year on a given winter's night, and depend largely on their untrained eyes. That means people who are couch-surfing, crouched in less visible spots, or staying in cars without telltale signs of habitation go undetected. The sheltered counts, collected by service providers, are more accurate.
The accuracy of the tallies depends largely on how many people show up to count. When local agencies rallied volunteers in the early months of the year, the Omicron variant was still tearing through the state. Technical glitches in apps used to count people also threw things off: The unsheltered count in Venice, a postcard example of homelessness in Los Angeles, inexplicably dropped from 509 people in 2019 to 0 amid reports of user errors and poor internet connection.
"I was surprised that the increase wasn't larger across the state," said Arturo Baiocchi, an assistant professor of social work at California State University, Sacramento. "Communities reported many more vehicles that are being used for shelter, and larger encampments, and that didn't necessarily correlate with a larger unsheltered count. For me, I'm going to wait until 2023 before I feel pretty confident about what's going on across the state."
Baiocchi, who helped conduct Saramento's point-in-time count, documented a startling 67% jump, or an additional 3,700 people experiencing homelessness in the city and county since 2019.
While far from perfect, the count offers the only statewide look at unsheltered homelessness in California, particularly among people who aren't enrolled in services and therefore overlooked by their tracking metrics. The federal government also takes it seriously: The numbers help determine how much funding flows where.
The feds expect to release their report on the national tally to Congress in early- to mid-December, which gives them time to iron out the kinks presented by the mish-mash of local methodologies. The Department of Housing and Urban Development and the state housing department declined to comment on the data, citing pending final results.
Latino homelessness on the rise
More detailed local reports reveal a troubling trend. While Black people continue to be overrepresented on the street, more and more Latinos are falling into homelessness.
The city and county of Los Angeles, for example, saw its total homeless population rise by 4% from 2020 to 69,000 people, an increase of 2,700 people. But its homeless Latino population spiked by 26%, or nearly 6,000 folks. Los Angeles is home to 40% of the state's homeless population and is seen by experts as a bellwether for homelessness in the state.
Latinos were long on the economic brink before being disproportionately sickened, killed and economically devastated by the pandemic, said Melissa Chinchilla, health services specialist and associate investigator at the UCLA Latino Policy and Politics Institute.
"I think for a long time, the Latino advocates in homeless services felt that the numbers were actually not reflective of how bad the situation was or how high the need was," Chinchilla said.
When state and local governments implemented pandemic programs to help people stay afloat, many Latinos were shut out, she said. Some people paid under the table, like house cleaners or field workers, may have struggled to qualify for unemployment insurance, while others with informal leases or language barriers ran up against similar problems with rental assistance.
And while California had laws to guard against eviction during the pandemic, undocumented immigrants were less likely to use them because of their precarious legal status. Plus, thousands of people got evicted during the pandemic anyway.
As those safety nets dissolve, experts worry the trend could play out at scale.
"Is (the rise in Latino homelessness) 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?" said Alex Visotzky, senior California Policy Fellow at the National Alliance to End Homelessness.
Latinos might be especially leery of turning to the government for help, too, said Juana Velasquez, a single mother of three born to Mexican parents in San José, California. She asked to be identified by her birth name to protect her family's identity.
"Hispanic families, my family for example, they're like stuck in the past," she said.
Velasquez said she was furloughed by her retail job when the pandemic hit and could no longer afford to pay the room she had been renting following a divorce. She and her three young kids bounced from their car, relatives' couches and motels for about a year, making them the type of homeless family most likely to go unnoticed by official metrics.
Last summer, they landed a spot in a gated community of tiny homes funded by the city of San José. The spot is not permanent, but instead defined as transitional housing, a form of shelter. Velasquez recognizes the two-bedroom, 235-square-foot tiny home is not a long-term solution, but calls it a stepping stone as she lingers on multiple waitlists for low-income apartments.
"My unit is nice and clean, it's colored white," she said. "It makes it relaxing. My daughter keeps her room clean and she thinks she owns the room for ever and ever. It's not even like a (full) room but it's her side, you know?" she said.
She peppers descriptions of the tiny home with words like safety, security, doors and locks.
"Nobody can walk into my house, just barge in and kind of hurt us," Velasquez said. "I come from a divorce. That left me a lot of black holes. But somehow I patched them up and now we have security."
'The housing doesn't exist'
Experts attribute the impressive bump in shelter capacity to Project Roomkey, Gov. Gavin Newsom's signature program to shelter people most vulnerable to the virus in underutilized hotel and motel rooms during the pandemic. The state secured more than 16,000 rooms at the program's height in August 2020, which has dwindled to about 5,000 beds, according to the state Department of Social Services.
"The governor deserves a lot of credit," said Weare, from the Center for Homeless Inquiries. "They mobilized. The problem is that that's over."
Project Homekey, Newsom's longer-term initiative to convert hotels, motels and office buildings, is expected to create more than 12,000 interim and permanent homeless housing units in the next few years.
Shana Funderburk, who goes by her middle name, Sunshine, stayed in a Project Roomkey unit in Sacramento when the count was carried out in February. But after they shut down her motel this spring, the 52-year-old woman who has been homeless for more than 11 years went back to the street.
"The protocol is to get us into a shelter and then I guess somebody picks up the ball from there, and then they help you get housing, or something," she said. "It just seems like we're being thrown into shelters and then forgotten."
About a fifth, or 12,000 of more than 55,000 people who left Project Roomkey, graduated to permanent housing, while about 9,000 people returned to the street, according to the state Department of Social Services. The majority of participants moved to either congregate shelter, temporary housing, institutions or unknown destinations.
Funderburk is now staying in what the city refers to as safe grounds, city-sanctioned camps where people get meals, security and services, like mental health counseling. Her tent is lined up against a chain-link fence, which makes her feel like a zoo exhibit as she brushes her teeth in the morning.
"I'm sure it's not good for the folks that have to drive by and see that and it's not exactly comforting for us either," she said.
But the case workers — her "Jiminy Crickets" — keep her motivated to treat her PTSD and other health issues and search for housing. Funderburk hopes she can eventually move into an apartment, mainly so she can help other people get indoors. That dream remains elusive.
"It's multiple-year waitlists. It's having a voucher and you can't find a place and you have to file extensions," said Kaylee Hrisoulas, a local social worker who works with Funderburk. "It's deposits that are just so high. The housing doesn't exist. That prolongs how long people have to be out here."