When California shut down in March 2020, advocates for unhoused people thought the state might finally be forced to solve its homelessness crisis. To slow the spread of Covid, they hoped, officials would have to provide people living outside with stable and private shelter and housing.
But in the two years since, California’s humanitarian catastrophe has worsened: deaths of people on the streets are rising; college students are living in their cars; more elderly residents are becoming unhoused; encampment communities are growing at beaches, parks, highway underpasses, lots and sidewalks.
California has the fifth largest economy in the world, a budget surplus, the most billionaires in the US and some of the nation’s wealthiest neighborhoods. Yet the riches of the Golden State have not yielded solutions that match the scale of the crisis that’s been raging for decades. Pandemic-era programs have had some success for a slice of the unhoused population, but many measures have fallen short.
Meanwhile, homelessness has become the top issue in political races. Polls in Los Angeles, which is home to 40% of the state’s unhoused population, suggest that a majority of voters want their governments to act faster, and that residents are angered by the immense human suffering caused by a seemingly intractable crisis.
In response, governments across the state are increasingly cracking down on people sleeping outside. Out of the 20 largest cities in California, the majority have either passed or proposed new laws banning camping in certain places or have ramped up encampment sweeps. LA and Oakland passed laws meant to prohibit camping in certain zones; San Francisco’s mayor has pushed for a police crackdown on unhoused people using drugs in the Tenderloin neighborhood; Fresno adopted a law to fine people up to $250 for entering certain restricted areas; and Modesto, Bakersfield and Riverside are pushing to expand the number of park rangers in an effort to enforce anti-camping rules and related restrictions.
Some unhoused people and civil rights activists warn that those escalating efforts to force people off the streets are only further hurting the most vulnerable.
“We have failed in so many respects,” said Theo Henderson, a Los Angeles advocate for the unhoused, who was himself living outside until recently. “There are families with children living in automobiles. There are elderly and the infirm on the streets … It’s a dark time right now, and unhoused residents are very afraid.”
In a new series that will be published over the next several months, Guardian US is examining California’s homelessness crisis across the state.
While homelessness remains concentrated in major metro areas like Los Angeles, San Jose, the San Francisco Bay area and San Diego, communities from the north to the Mexico border are facing their own emergencies.
California counted 161,548 unhoused people in the state in January 2020, the most recent count data available. The count is a “point in time” estimate that tallies people living on the street or in shelters. Since it’s a rough snapshot of a single day, and doesn’t account for people who are hidden from public view or are unhoused but couch-surfing that night, it is considered a significant undercount.
At least 113,660 of those counted were classified as “unsheltered”, making California home to more than half of all people without shelter in America and the only state where more than 70% of the homeless population is unsheltered (by comparison, just 5% of New York’s homeless population was unsheltered.
The consequences of so many people living outside are severe and fatal. In 2015, the LA county coroner’s office recorded 613 deaths of unhoused people. That number has steadily climbed each year, rising to 1,609 fatalities in 2021, a spokesperson said. Those figures are an undercount, because the coroner only tracks fatalities considered sudden, unusual or violent. A report by the University of California, Los Angeles last year estimated that overdoses were a leading cause of death of unhoused people during the pandemic.
Data analyses have revealed other disturbing trends: one UCLA study estimated that at least 269,000 students from kindergarten to grade 12 in the state were experiencing homelessness before the pandemic; in LA county, Black residents were four times as likely to be unhoused; and also in LA, there was a 20% jump in the number of unhoused seniors, with nearly 5,000 elderly people living outside before Covid arrived.
“It’s just not acceptable,” said Wendy Carrillo, a state assemblymember who represents parts of LA and chairs a budget committee on homelessness. As a kid, she would pass by Skid Row and struggle to understand why so many people were forced to live outside, she said. The crisis has grown since: “We’ve become so disconnected as a society, so cold to the issue that people are OK with stepping over someone who is passed out on the floor.”
A $14bn investment – and a crackdown on camping
California’s catastrophe stems in part from a longstanding, statewide housing affordability crisis. Californians spend significantly more of their income on housing compared with the rest of the nation. More than 1.5 million renters spend half of their earnings on rent, leaving them potentially one medical emergency or crisis away from homelessness. In recent years, income inequality has only worsened.
UCLA research on the residents of one LA encampment found that people cited a range of factors that led them to become unhoused, including eviction, job loss, domestic violence, former incarceration, family conflict and low wages in gig economy jobs.
Responding to the crisis, California is pouring billions of dollars into housing and related services, but the success of new programs meant to expand affordable housing and emergency shelter has been mixed.
“One of the challenges of housing policy is that it’s like turning around a giant ship. It’s a slow process,” said Shamus Roller, executive director of the National Housing Law Project. The state has made significant progress in recent years in investing in housing, he noted, but the benefits can sometimes take more than a decade to materialize.
There are also systemic and historical problems that housing programs can’t solve, including the loss of social safety nets, the dissolution of redevelopment programs, and a controversial state tax measure passed in 1978 that has created significant obstacles for new home ownership, Roller said.
And some regions have invested more in temporary shelter programs than in permanent housing, making it hard for people to transition out of shelters, especially as the housing market worsens and as more people newly become unhoused, advocates said.
Emblematic of the challenges is California’s signature homelessness response during the pandemic: Project Roomkey. The program temporarily provided motel rooms to an estimated 50,000living on the streets. But the program was administered at the local level and some counties fell short of their goals or failed to meet the demand in their regions; participants reported struggling to find housing after hotel stays ended and some returned to the streets because of the strict rules in the program, advocates said.
This year, the California governor, Gavin Newsom, is pushing a $14bn investment in homelessness solutions, meant to create 55,000 new housing units and treatment slots. His Homekey initiative, the successor to Project Roomkey, allows local governments to buy motels to use as temporary or permanent housing for unhoused people. As of last week, the state has awarded $695m for more than 2,400 units.
While the programs could be transformative for some participants, advocates worry their impact for many could come too late, especially with statewide eviction protections expiring at the end of the month and pandemic-era rent relief efforts winding down. Even with a partial eviction moratorium in place, sheriffs enforced lockouts of thousands of households in the first year of the pandemic, according to a CalMatters analysis.
“We are getting a lot of calls from tenants who are being evicted,” said Jovana Morales-Tilgren, housing policy coordinator with Leadership Counsel for Justice and Accountability, a Central Valley-based organization. “A lot of undocumented folks don’t have the resources to battle an eviction notice … and then there are not enough shelters for the unhoused people.”
Meanwhile, advocates warn, conditions for those living on the streets are only getting harder amid increasing restrictions on camping. A proposed state law would also allow courts to force some people with severe mental illness into treatment.
The crackdown on tent living and fear of possible forced treatment can lead people to scatter into more hidden locations where it can be harder for them to access services and get into programs, advocates say.
“Using law enforcement to respond to houselessness is both counterproductive and ineffective,” said Eve Garrow, policy analyst and advocate at the ACLU of Southern California. The expansion of criminalization was overwhelming, Garrow said. “And people are experiencing compassion fatigue, and they want something done. Local public officials are responding with what they see as ‘quick fixes’ that aren’t fixes at all and are completely misguided.”
‘I don’t want to die on the streets’
People living on the streets or in temporary shelters waiting for housing said they were worried and exhausted by the increasingly hostile rhetoric of politicians and communities.
“Unhoused people are blamed for every social ill,” said Henderson, who regularly talks to unhoused residents on his podcast. “There’s an uptick in burglaries, and then the response is, ‘Can we get the unhoused removed?’ Every unhoused person has those stories – as soon as something happens, here comes the police looking at them as the prime suspect.”
Kenneth Stallworth, who has been living in a group shelter since his Venice Beach encampment was shut down in a high-profile dispute last year, said he didn’t mind the shelter and appreciated the electricity, but also noted that he had seen several people die or have health emergencies in the facility.
“The people are getting what they want,” he said of his fellow Angelenos. “The homeless are getting moved away from areas where there were the most complaints.”
Dawn Toftee, 57, was living at an encampment near the stadium where the Super Bowl was held in LA last month, until she was forced to leave in advance of the big game. Officials said the residents were offered housing, but a month later, Toftee is camping down the street – and is still waiting for a housing voucher that could subsidize a rental.
“I’m getting old and I don’t want to die on the streets,” she said, adding that she didn’t think officials cared whether people like her got housing: “They just want us out of eyesight.”