Monday Morning Thoughts: California’s Homeless Crisis Is Solvable

Photo by Mihály Köles on Unsplash

By David M. Greenwald
Executive Editor

Sacramento, CA – Recent assessments show that California leads the nation by a wide margin in homelessness and, in particular, an unsheltered homeless population.

Between 2020 and 2022, California’s homeless population expanded more than any other state’s and now sits at 171,000—according to one estimate, about 20 times faster than the national average.

What’s really stunning is a study funded by the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation, run by the Corporation for Supportive Housing, which conducted a data analysis in California to assess the total statewide need for housing, housing support services, and interim interventions.

They found the total unmet housing need for “households experiencing and expected to experience homelessness over the next 12 years is 225,053 units.”

They learned that it would take about $8.1 billion annually over the next 12 years to solve homelessness in California.

Currently, the state and federal governments are committing around $1.2 billion annually, which reduces the gap to about $6.9 billion.

It sounds like a lot, but the reality is that’s just 2.7 percent of the state’s annual budget.

“The assessment shows homelessness is solvable in California,” the report concluded. “By committing resources to meet goals based on data in this assessment, California can put in motion an investment plan, policies, and partnerships with local governments that would allow the state to end homelessness by 2035.

“To put California on a path toward solving homelessness, the state must partner with local governments to invest ongoing resources in evidence-based solutions at levels to match the scale of need.”

Sacramento Bee Deputy Editor Josh Gohlke in a column yesterday pointed out, “It’s not as if this problem has never been solved, after all — or isn’t being effectively addressed in other places right now.”

He noted that in both New York and Hawaii, which had previously had higher homeless rates than California, they have decreased their homeless population.

“Over the last 15 years, while national homelessness declined 10%, California’s grew over 20%,” he writes.

That understates the problem because California has two-thirds of its homeless population unsheltered while New York has almost none of its homeless population unsheltered, and the majority of the nation’s homeless population is sheltered.

HUD found California has more than “nine times the number of unsheltered people in the state with the next highest number, Washington.”

It is one of just eight states that do not shelter the majority of their homeless population.  Three states, including the aforementioned New York, shelter more than 95 percent of their homeless population.

A lot of attention has been focused on the LA area.  But, as we noted in November, the “unhoused population has soared all over California, but the increase in Sacramento has been particularly stunning,” according to a report in the Guardian.

The paper reported: “The region has seen an almost 70% rise in homelessness since 2019, now counting more unhoused people than San Francisco. At least 9,278 people are estimated to be without a home, the majority of whom sleep outdoors or in vehicles. Encampments can be seen on levees, near schools and next to busy roads.”

Most experts of course place the blame on the soaring costs of housing, which have destabilized already vulnerable populations.

For example, the Guardian notes, “The primary force behind the dramatic rise, according to the 2022 point-in-time count, is the high cost of housing. The median home price in the county has surpassed $500,000 and the median monthly rent is $2,774, up more than 5% from last year.”

They cite local activist Crystal Sanchez, the president of the Sacramento Homeless Union, who notes that downtown Sacramento studios rent for as much as $2000 a month as thousands of people are forced to sleep outside.

“Sacramento, the capital of the fifth largest economy in the world, lacks over 100,000 units of affordable housing,” Sanchez said. “We can’t survive here. I’ve lived here my whole life.”

Yesterday Gohkle wrote, “California’s housing shortage and consequent costs, attributable mainly to state and local overregulation, are chiefly responsible for its disproportionate homelessness.”

CSH found, “California has the largest number of people experiencing homelessness of any state in America, 25 percent of all Americans who are homeless, because we lack housing affordable to people with the lowest incomes.”

They add, “When our communities‘ housing costs are too high, finding a place to live becomes impossible for people with extremely low wages or fixed or no incomes. In fact, this income group is priced out of every housing market in California.”

In September Gohlke argued that “Californians should get used to this mess” because instead of dealing with the problem at the core, the Governor and legislature have doubled down on compelled treatment of the severely mentally ill through the CARE Act.  Something that seems politically popular except that the experts don’t believe it will work and critics note there is not enough funding now to treat everyone in need – and the only funding CARE provides is for administration.”

Gohlke added, “Contrary to much of the public conversation about homelessness, research has repeatedly shown that homelessness rates are closely correlated with the overall availability and cost of housing.”

That’s the conclusion of the CSH study, as they note, “An increasing number of communities use data to arrive at goals to decrease homelessness, data focusing on evidence-based solutions. Studies of homelessness over the last 25 years concluded housing solves homelessness (housing is an apartment or home with a lease).”

Like many others, they point to Houston, a community that reduced homelessness by 63 percent “through a strategy that steadfastly committed—and dedicated resources to—housing people experiencing homelessness.”

If anything the value of this data is that it gives us a number—a feasible number of increased funding for housing and other services in order to really cut into homelessness.

$6.9 billion sounds like a lot of money.

But as Gohkle points out, it actually “sounds like more than it is for this huge, rich state, which would need to devote just 2.7% of its budget to the crisis to reach that level.”

In fact, the LAO estimated a much “lower estimate based on what New York spends to bring most of its homeless people indoors, partly because officials there rely heavily on emergency shelter rather than full-fledged housing.”

There is no reason why we shouldn’t shoot for full-fledged housing rather than simply shelters, but either way, as Gohkle puts it, “this is a project well within California’s means.”

Given that everyone understands how big a problem this is—why aren’t we doing something that evidence shows actually works?

About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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  1. Jim Frame

    “When our communities‘ housing costs are too high, finding a place to live becomes impossible for people with extremely low wages or fixed or no incomes. In fact, this income group is priced out of every housing market in California.”

    The only thing new about this is the scale of the problem, and that problem is multifaceted.

    People with extremely low incomes are always going to struggle to find market-rate housing, and funding for publicly-subsidized housing is scarce.  Curing that aspect of the problem is going to require a sea change in attitudes toward tax policies (e.g.,  Prop 13, redevelopment agencies).  It’s a big lift, but a worthy one, but has to be addressed at the state level.

    Land costs are high statewide because demand is high among people with money.  Income stratification — a feature of the current Gilded Age of capitalism — fosters this situation.  Until the electorate gets fed up with that and there’s room for another Progessive Era to emerge, competition for land will continue to depress affordable housing construction.

    Regional competition is another factor.  Locally, Davis remains attractive to Bay Area retirees and prospective commuter/remote workers, and that will keep the pressure on land costs here.  I don’t believe that approving massive new market-rate housing projects just to skim off a modest percentage of subsidized affordable units is a wise or effective approach, and the history of Measure J (or whatever we’re calling it now) suggests that a majority of Davis voters feel the same way.

    Magic bullets are in short supply, and I think a continued (and long-term) push from the state is the only way toward a comprehensive solution.

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