Where Does California’s Homeless Population Come From?

By: Inyoung Kang
November 6, 2019 —

Today, we have a dispatch from our colleague Marie Tae McDermott, who tackled the latest installment of our series answering readers’ questions about inequality in California:

Christine Kroger, a reader from Stockton, wrote: “Where are the homeless people from? If they are transplants, when did they come to California, what brought them here, and how did they end up in their current circumstances?”

Another reader, Jim, from Santa Cruz, wrote that he believed “many, if not most” of the homeless people he saw were not native Californians. He asked: “Why is California bearing the brunt of this national crisis?”

Elizabeth Erickson, a reader in Seattle, echoed his sentiments, saying: “Do many homeless or near-homeless move to politically liberal areas, making the assumption that they will receive more assistance?”

Orange County Sheriff’s Deputy Dave Wise accompanies two women from the Orange County Public Health Department as they walk through the Honda Center encampment. They were offering flu shots and shots to fight off Hepatitis A. (Photo by Bill Alkofer, Orange County Register/SCNG)

As the data shows us, most of the homeless people you pass on the streets every day are in fact Californians. Some may have rented an apartment or once owned a home in your neighborhood. Now they sleep in an encampment near the freeway you take to work each morning.

“This is a local crisis and a homegrown problem,” said Peter Lynn, the executive director of the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority, the agency that conducts the largest homeless census count in the country.

Several years ago, L.A.H.S.A. added a question to its homeless survey that captured how long a person had been in Los Angeles and where they became homeless. The resulting data dispelled the idea that the homeless population was largely made up of people from out of state.

“The vast majority fell into homelessness in L.A. County,” Mr. Lynn said.

A homeless man ponders his situation outside his tent in the Honda Center homeless encampment. The people living in the encampment are being forced off the river bed.(Photo by Bill Alkofer, Orange County Register/SCNG)

L.A.H.S.A.’s 2019 homeless count found that 64 percent of the 58,936 Los Angeles County residents experiencing homelessness had lived in the city for more than 10 years. Less than a fifth (18 percent) said they had lived out of state before becoming homeless.

In San Francisco, 43 percent of the homeless said they had lived in the city for more than 10 years.

The path to becoming homeless can start with a large medical bill that causes someone to fall behind on their rent payments, which leads to eventual eviction. More than half of the people surveyed in Los Angeles cited economic hardship as the primary reason that they fell into homelessness. In San Francisco, 26 percent of the homeless surveyed cited the loss of a job as the primary cause.

The survey also found that nearly a quarter (23 percent) of unsheltered adults lost their housing in 2018 and were experiencing homelessness for the first time. In Los Angeles, a renter earning minimum wage ($13.25 an hour) would need to work 79 hours per week to afford a one-bedroom apartment.

Contractors pickup trash as rumors the homeless encampments along the Santa Ana Riverbed will be forced to leave, from Orange to Anaheim, CA, on Monday morning, Jan 22, 2018. (Photo by Ken Steinhardt, Orange County Register/SCNG)

Data about migration to California from other states among the housed population showed that the largest group of transplants to the state were actually college-educated professionals, ranging from 20 to 29, from Illinois, New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania. Over the past five years, California has gained 162,000 more college graduates from other states than it has lost.

“I hear a lot of people complain that the homeless people are all from ‘somewhere else,’” wrote Ms. Kroger of Stockton, a lifelong Californian. “I think it might raise empathy and compassion if it turns out that the majority of the people who have been displaced are from the very communities in which they are now trying to survive on the streets.”

This article courtesy of the New York Times


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