California Unhoused Population Grew by More than 22,000 Since Start of Pandemic

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 assistanceeviction 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