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Blog Post · March 21, 2024

An Update on Homelessness in California

photo - Bunks in a Homeless Shelter

Every January, the federal government conducts a “point-in-time” (PIT) count of the nation’s homeless population on a single night; this count is imperfect, but it is one of the few measures of sheltered and unsheltered homelessness. The 2023 PIT count released in December estimated that more than 180,000 people were experiencing homelessness in our state—up 6% from the previous count. Many of the state’s Continuums of Care (CoCs)—community-based coalitions of nonprofit and government entities that help address homelessness—did not count their unsheltered homeless populations in 2023, so the overall count is most likely more of an underestimate than usual. However, we can glean some insights.

Most CoCs conduct annual point-in-time counts of both sheltered and unsheltered homelessness, even though they are only required to do biennial counts. In 2023, however, 15 of the state’s 44 CoCs—including those in San Francisco, Sacramento, Oakland, Berkeley/Alameda, Santa Ana, and Anaheim/Orange—counted only their sheltered homeless populations. The statewide total includes 2022 unsheltered counts from these CoCs. Given that more than two-thirds of people experiencing homelessness in California are unsheltered—the highest share in the country—the absence of updated numbers from so many CoCs has a significant impact on the interpretability of the official PIT estimate.

Nonetheless, we can derive useful information from the 2023 count, especially if we focus our attention on the 29 CoCs that conducted a complete 2023 count. These 29 CoCs, which accounted for 73% of the statewide homeless population in 2022, reported a 7.5% increase in overall homelessness between 2002 and 2023. If we extrapolate this rate of increase to the 2022 count, the total number of people experiencing homelessness in 2023 rises to nearly 185,000.

Among the 29 CoCs reporting unsheltered counts in 2023, the number of people in unsheltered locations was 9.4% higher than in 2022; this is in line with the 9.7% increase registered nationwide. Moreover, unsheltered homelessness in the state’s major city CoCs was 12.8% higher in 2023. If we apply that increase to the 2022 unsheltered counts in the San Francisco, Sacramento, and Oakland/Alameda CoCs, we end up with 2,300 additional people experiencing unsheltered homelessness.

A deeper dive into sheltered and unsheltered counts across CoCs yields additional insights:

Sheltered homelessness: In 2023, 58,000 people were in shelters at the time of the count; this represents a 3.5% increase from January 2022. However, there was wide regional variation. Some CoCs saw significant increases—including those in San Bernardino (29.1%), San Diego (17.9%), Santa Ana, Anaheim/Orange (12.5%). By contrast, Fresno/Madera and San Francisco CoCs counted fewer people in shelters compared to 2022.

Unsheltered homelessness: About half of the CoCs that reported unsheltered counts saw increases— including Los Angeles, where the number of unsheltered homeless people rose 14% (by 6,000 people), and San Diego, where the increase was 26% (by 1,000 people). The other half—including those in Contra Costa (29%), Sonoma (38%), and San Jose/Santa Clara (4%)—reported declines in unsheltered homelessness. Shares of unsheltered homelessness vary across localities. For example, more than 70% of the homeless population in San Jose/Santa Clara, Los Angeles, and Contra Costa is unsheltered, compared to only half in San Diego and 57% in Sonoma.

Given the current scarcity of housing and the severe rent burden shouldered by California’s low-income populations, reducing homelessness likely requires a broad range of short- and long-term strategies that address local conditions. Earlier this month, Californians voted on a ballot measure aimed at addressing key issues related to homelessness—including expanding supportive housing and treatment for substance abuse and mental illness. While the measure appears to have passed, local conditions around the state are worth noting.

For example, although housing costs are low in San Bernardino compared to the rest of the state, rents have increased significantly since 2020, possibly contributing to a significant rise in sheltered and unsheltered homelessness. In San Jose/Santa Clara, an emphasis on increasing temporary housing and support services likely played a role in reducing the unsheltered population and lowering homelessness overall as people eventually moved into permanent housing. In San Diego, increased shelter capacity has similarly helped increase the sheltered population, but a persistent shortage of shelter beds has contributed to a simultaneous increase in the city’s unsheltered population. Finally, while LA’s Inside Safe and Pathway Home programs are addressing unsheltered homelessness, the city continues to struggle when it comes to moving people into permanent housing, highlighting the need for additional supports and services.

CoCs will begin releasing their 2024 point-in-time reports this summer. PPIC will continue to track changes in the state’s homeless population and monitor state and local efforts to reduce homelessness as more data becomes available.


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