Michael Gennaro

(CN) — A new study revealed an alarming correlation between soaring housing costs and the escalating homelessness crisis in California.

The study released Tuesday found that the cost of housing is the main cause of a person losing their home, and that most respondents could have avoided homelessness if more services, such as rental subsidies or one-time financial help, were available.

Contrary to the popular narrative of homeless people moving to California, the study found that nine out of 10 people experiencing homelessness in California are residents of the state. Four out of five people reported being homeless in the same county they previously had housing in.

“Some of the findings reinforce things we’ve already known, particularly that homelessness in California is, first and foremost, a home-grown phenomenon affecting existing residents and that is primarily related to a lack of affordable housing exposing the most precariously housed Californians to a high risk of falling into homelessness,” said Jason Ward, associate director of RAND Center on Housing and Homelessness in Los Angeles.

The largest representative study of homelessness in the U.S. in nearly 30 years examined the causes and effects of homelessness in California and recommended ways to help. The California Statewide Study of People Experiencing Homelessness was conducted by the University of California, San Francisco's Benioff Homelessness and Housing Initiative.

“CASPEH provides the richest and most comprehensive data to date on how people experience homelessness across California, and it does so while prioritizing perspectives based on lived experience and grounded in racial equity," said Ryan Finnigan, a senior researcher with the Terner Center for Housing Innovation at UC Berkeley. “The report powerfully highlights the fundamental need to increase the supply of affordable housing and provide ongoing resources for supportive services. Homelessness can be solved with sustained effort and investment, and this study helps point to where these efforts are most needed.”

California has the largest homeless population in the United States, with 171,000 homeless people, twice as many as New York. The Golden State has 30% of the U.S. homeless population, even though it is home to only 12% of the total population.

Researchers surveyed 3,198 people and conducted over 300 in-depth interviews from October 2021 through November 2022.

The homeless in California tend to be older, with a median age of 47. Those with Black or indigenous heritage are overrepresented in homelessness compared to the overall California population, while 35% of respondents were Hispanic.

Participants in the study reported being exposed to stress or trauma before becoming homeless, such as exposure to violence, drugs or jail. Two-thirds reported having a mental illness. One out of five participants who used substances wanted treatment but could not access it. Many became homeless with little to no warning; leaseholders reported a median 10 days notice before they lost their homes.

“The study provides evidence that, while mental health and substance use issues appear to be strongly correlated with experiencing unsheltered homelessness, conditions associated with living unsheltered for long periods of time appear to be critical catalysts for these preexisting conditions becoming less manageable and more overwhelming,” said Ward.

For example, while slightly over one quarter of respondents reported having experienced a hospitalization for a serious mental illness, only half of these respondents experienced such an event prior to their first experience with homelessness.

Participants reported barriers in trying to get a home, with a poor credit history or a history of evictions serving as a roadblock to obtaining housing.

“Having experienced homelessness firsthand, I vividly recall the relentless fight for survival, the pervasive shame that haunted me, and my unsuccessful endeavors to overcome homelessness on my own,” said Claudine Sipili, a member of the CASPEH Lived Expertise Board. “The study holds great significance for me because it aims to provide a more comprehensive understanding of homelessness. I hope it will inform the development of effective strategies, policies, and programs; address the issue in a dignifying way; and support individuals in their transition from homelessness to housing stability.”

The study recommended six main policy changes to address the homeless crisis, including increasing access to affordable housing for those making less than 30% of an area’s median income, expanding rental subsidies, and building more housing in the hardest-hit areas.

Other recommendations include expanded services, such as increased eviction protections, and increased financial and legal assistance at locations where people access other services, such as health care centers and community organizations.

The report also recommended embedding a racial equity approach in all aspects of homeless system service delivery, as well as increasing outreach, job training and mental health services.

“As we drive toward addressing the health and housing needs of Californians experiencing homelessness, this study reinforces the importance of comprehensive and integrated supports" said Mark Ghaly, secretary of the California Health and Human Services Agency. “California is taking bold steps to address unmet needs for physical and behavioral health services, to create a range of housing options that are safe and stable, and to meet people where they are at." We are grateful for the voices of those who participated in this study, as they will help guide our approach.”