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Blog Post · May 1, 2024

Taking Stock of California’s Capacity to House Its Homeless Population

photo - Elderly Man in Hotel Room Looking out Window

Given recent increases in homelessness—and the prevalence of unsheltered homelessness—in California, programs that can prevent and mitigate homelessness and housing instability are more urgently needed than ever. Through its Housing Inventory Count (HIC) National Inventory of Beds, the federal government’s 2023 Annual Homelessness Assessment Report (AHAR) sheds light on the state’s permanent housing and emergency shelter capacity. It indicates that despite promising growth, California’s homeless housing programs are not meeting a growing need.

An influx of federal support during the pandemic boosted statewide permanent housing capacity which accounts for two-thirds of the state’s homeless program beds. Permanent supportive housing for people with disabilities accounts for most of these beds, but recent growth has been primarily in other programs. Starting in May 2021, the Emergency Housing Voucher program allocated 17,000 new vouchers to California; over 93% have been utilized. The amount of permanent housing for people transitioning out of homelessness continued to grow from 2022 to 2023.

However, rates of homelessness have also continued to increase, and pandemic-era funding is ending. A recent decline in rapid re-housing capacity likely reflects a decline in the number of beds funded by the Emergency Solutions Grants – Coronavirus (ESG-CV) program.

Federal pandemic funding also contributed to increases in emergency shelter beds, which account for the remaining third of all homeless program beds. Since 2020, just before the pandemic, the availability of shelter beds in California has increased by 34%, compared to 14% growth nationally. Most of the increase has been in emergency shelters, which provide temporary housing.

However, there is still a shortage of shelter beds. As of the January 2023 point-in-time count, the total number of people experiencing homelessness was estimated to be 181,399, and the state had only 71,131 shelter beds available—a shortfall of over 110,000 beds.

The shortfall might be larger than these estimates indicate, given that 15 of the state’s 44 Continuums of Care (CoCs)—community-based coalitions of nonprofit and government entities that help address homelessness—counted only their sheltered homeless populations in 2023. In total, the 29 CoCs that counted both sheltered and unsheltered populations reported having only 39 shelter beds for every 100 people experiencing homelessness.

Housing programs are implemented locally, in varying economic, housing, and demographic contexts. As a result, there is wide variation in the availability, distribution, and growth of bed inventory. However, the shortage of beds is universal: the 2023 count indicates that no CoC was able to provide shelter beds to all residents currently experiencing homelessness.

The key challenges are clear: rising costs and limited progress despite increased spending. In San Francisco, where capacity has grown significantly, the city's homelessness department projected it would need almost $1 billion more in funding to end unsheltered homelessness over the next three years. In Los Angeles, programs such as Inside Safe have attempted to address capacity issues, but concerns about high costs and the difficulty of tracking and improving longer-term outcomes resulted in city officials agreeing to an independent audit. Calls for increased transparency have increased since separate audits released earlier this month found that both the state and the cities of San Diego and San Jose have failed to consistently monitor program spending or effectiveness.

Last month, Californians narrowly passed Proposition 1, a bond for the construction of treatment facilities and permanent supportive housing for people with mental health and addiction challenges. In light of concerns about costs and monitoring—as well as state and local budget constraints—it will be important to make careful use of this and other funding for programs designed to address homelessness. Tracking spending, collecting data, and evaluating outcomes can help ensure that temporary and permanent housing programs are having their intended impact. As California continues to grapple with this complex issue, PPIC will monitor state and local efforts to reduce homelessness.


Health & Safety Net homelessness Housing Population Poverty & Inequality