What Does California’s Homeless Population Actually Look Like?

What Does California’s Homeless Population Actually Look Like?

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Politicians and commentators spend a disproportionate amount of time talking about a small subset of the homeless population.

by Jay Caspian Kang

This past week, Vanity Fair published a story on California politics in which Nancy Pelosi weighed in on the state’s homelessness crisis. Though the state has poured a number of resources into housing the homeless population, especially during the pandemic, there are “a lot of people who don’t want to come off the street,” Pelosi said. “It’s drugs and mental health. If we don’t get the mentally ill off the street, we’re never going to solve the homeless problem.” Pelosi, to her credit, has pushed for more affordable housing in the state, but her statement reflects a frustrating feature of homelessness discourse: an emphasis on drug abuse and mental illness, rather than a lack of housing, as the source of the problem. Many people talk about California’s homeless community as a monolith, yet the state really has three distinct homeless populations, and much of the public’s confusion about what should be done about the crisis comes from a fundamental misunderstanding of what homelessness actually looks like.

The first and biggest category (and arguably the least visible) is often called short-term homelessness, which describes about two-thirds of California’s homeless population. This might include, say, a young woman who recently experienced a mental-health crisis that caused her to lose her job and her apartment. She might patch together a series of temporary solutions—staying in a car, on the couch of a friend, maybe a few weeks in a congregate shelter, or, if things go badly, beneath a freeway underpass with other homeless people—until she’s placed in permanent supportive housing. If a person in this category makes it to permanent supportive housing, she will almost certainly stay off the streets.

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