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RVs, cars, trash and personal belongings  are visible at the homeless encampment along Coyote Creek near Old Oakland Road on May 11, 2023, in San Jose, Calif. (Dai Sugano/Bay Area ɫ̳ Group)
RVs, cars, trash and personal belongings are visible at the homeless encampment along Coyote Creek near Old Oakland Road on May 11, 2023, in San Jose, Calif. (Dai Sugano/Bay Area ɫ̳ Group)

California’s homeless population grew 6% this year to more than 181,000 people–by far the largest estimate of any state, accounting for nearly three in 10 unhoused people nationwide, according to new federal data.

The increase comes as public frustration is mounting over California’s struggle to curb homelessness despite unprecedented billions spent in recent years to get people off the street.

Experts and advocates say that while drugs and mental health play a significant role, the homelessness crisis will persist until the state can reverse its intensifying affordable housing shortage. Between 2000 and 2021, California’s typical rent swelled 38% while renter income rose only 7%, according to researchers with the nonprofit .

“California’s homelessness crisis is being driven by the same factors that are driving the crisis in the rest of the country, but driven to the extreme,” said Alex Visotzky, senior California policy fellow with the nonprofit National Alliance to End Homelessness.

The U.S. homeless population increased by 12% between 2022 and 2023 to more than 650,000 people — the highest total since the Department of Housing and Urban Development began collecting in 2007. The bump in the state and nationwide numbers followed rising housing costs across the country and the expiration of pandemic emergency programs, including expanded unemployment assistance, rental aid and eviction moratoriums.

In the Bay Area, homelessness increased just 1% in , 4% in , and declined 4% in , according to previously released local data. Officials there said building more affordable and supportive housing, coupled with pandemic aid, helped prevent a surge. Emergency eviction protections in California also lasted longer than in most of the rest of the country.

“The common factor in all of those places where they’ve flattened the curve is they’ve invested in resources and affordable housing,” Visotzky said.

and counties, however, saw their homeless populations jump by around 20%. Across the five-county region, the estimates identified roughly 31,000 homeless people.

Pie chart showing that - according to new federal data - more than half of all homeless people in the country are in four states. California, 28%; New York, 16%; Florida, 5%; Washington, 4%; and the rest of the country has 47% of the estimated population of homeless people.Most counties nationwide tallied homeless estimates over a handful of nights in January before sending them to the federal government. Volunteers with flashlights and clipboards set out to identify everyone living in tents, encampments, vehicles and shelters. (Twenty-two counties, including Alameda, San Mateo and San Francisco, submitted their latest counts from 2022, meaning those estimates are not as up-to-date as the counts for Santa Clara and Contra Costa counties.)

Officials caution the “point-in-time” counts do not reflect a precise census, and advocates have raised concerns about the accuracy of the estimates. Still, the counts help cities and counties plan their homelessness response and determine how much state and federal funding local governments receive.

While California, the most populous U.S. state, counted the most homeless residents of any state, it was nowhere near the top in terms of the largest percentage increase this year. New Hampshire saw the biggest spike at 52%, followed by New Mexico at 50%, and New York and Colorado at 39%.

California also had the fourth-highest rate of homelessness, with 46 unhoused people for every 10,000 residents. The state trailed New York with 52, Oregon with 51 and Vermont with 48. The national figure was 22.

But the Golden State had the largest share of homeless people living outdoors or in vehicles at 68%, with the rest in shelters or temporary housing. Meanwhile, New York — home to the nation’s second-largest homeless population — reported just 5% of homeless people were unsheltered.

Part of the reason for the disparity is New York City’s court-enforced “,” which requires officials to offer homeless residents a roof over their heads. Massachusetts has a similar requirement, and other cold-weather cities and states have prioritized building emergency shelters to shield unhoused people from frigid winter conditions.

In California and the Bay Area, some officials are pushing to rapidly scale up shelter capacity over objections from advocates who say cities should instead focus on building permanent supportive housing. Without more housing, they argue, shelters can only help so many people out of homelessness.

The debate is playing out in San Jose, where officials aim to, in part to gain the to clear more encampments. Santa Clara County, which includes San Jose, had the highest rate of unsheltered homelessness of any major metro area in the U.S., with three-quarters of its more than 9,900 homeless residents living in places not meant for habitation.

To create more shelter and housing for homeless people, California officials in 2020 launched a $3.75 billion program dubbed , which has so far funded the creation of more than 14,600 units statewide. That’s on top of billions in additional state and federal funding being funneled to local governments for homelessness services and programs.

The state is also working to , including asking voters this coming March to approve a $6.4 billion bond measure to add around 10,000 treatment beds. And California regulators have set an of requiring cities and counties to approve roughly 2.5 million new homes — about half of them affordable — over the next decade.

But it’s clear those efforts haven’t been near enough to get a handle on the crisis.

Vivian Wan, chief operating officer with Abode, which manages homeless housing and services across the Bay Area, acknowledged the public’s exasperation over putting so many resources toward fixing a problem that doesn’t seem to be improving.

“People are saying, ‘Why didn’t you solve it?’” she said. “It’s because we didn’t solve the housing crisis.”

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