Report Identifies Causes and Consequences of Homelessness in California

The Toward a New Understanding: California Statewide Study of People Experiencing Homelessness (CASPEH), released by the University of California San Francisco Benioff Homelessness and Housing Initiative (BHHI), finds unhoused people experience significant barriers to obtaining housing, such as high costs, discrimination, and logistical barriers. Unhoused people in California reported significant sources of trauma in their lives that predated homelessness, including physical and sexual violence, incarceration, substance abuse, and mental health challenges. Most participants said that financial assistance such as monthly subsidies, one large payment, or rental assistance would have prevented the loss of their housing.

CASPEH included data collected between October 2021 and November 2022 from a representative sample of adults experiencing homelessness across California. Data were collected from 3,200 questionnaires and 365 in-depth interviews conducted in English, Spanish, or other languages with a translator. Questions focused on characteristics of people experiencing homelessness, how they became homeless, what happened to them while homeless, and what barriers prevented them from accessing housing. The study was also informed by a lived experience advisory board, local leaders, and partners including government representatives, service providers, and advocacy groups.

Contrary to the myth that homeless people migrate to California, the study found that 90% of people experiencing homelessness in California were most recently housed in-state. The vast majority of those experiencing homelessness were single homeless adults, 48% of whom were over the age of 50. Black and Indigenous people were disproportionately impacted by homelessness. Traumatic experiences were common, with 72% of the participants experiencing physical violence and 24% experiencing sexual violence at some point in their lives. Seventy-nine percent reported a previous incarceration. Substance abuse and mental health conditions were also common, with 1 in 5 reporting a history of an overdose and 1 in 3 reporting a suicide attempt at some point in their lives.

The study revealed different factors contributing to homelessness. Overall, 47% of participants reported economic reasons for leaving their last housing, 32% reported health reasons, and 63% reported social reasons such as conflict with roommates, overcrowding, or not wanting to impose on others. Extremely limited incomes played a significant role—median monthly household income prior to becoming homeless was $960. Thirty-six percent of participants reported seeking any type of support prior to experiencing homelessness, such as advice from family and friends, information about housing resources, or transportation support. The most common type of support sought was from family and friends. Many participants stated they were unaware of government and nonprofit services that could help.

Participants experienced many adverse impacts on their health and wellbeing while homeless. Seventy-eight percent of the participants said they spent most of their time unsheltered during the last six months. Forty-one percent said there was a time they wanted to be sheltered but could not access it. Participants were asked whether several interventions would have prevented their homelessness for at least two years. Seventy percent said a shallow monthly subsidy of $300-$500 would have prevented their homelessness; 82% said one lump-sum payment of $5,000-$10,000 would have kept them housed; and 90% said an ongoing subsidy that capped their housing costs at 30% of their income would have prevented their homelessness.

Based on the CASPEH’s findings, BHHI presents six policy recommendations:

  • Increase access to housing affordable to households making less than 30% of the Area Median Income by increasing the amount of affordable housing, expanding rental subsidies, and making it easier to access subsidies;
  • Expand targeted homelessness prevention by strengthening eviction protections and providing financial and legal supports at locations where people access other services and upon release from institutions such as jails, prisons, and drug treatment centers;
  • Increase behavioral health supports to meet demand by expanding low-barrier treatment for mental health, substance abuse, and harm reduction services. Staff permanent supportive housing and intensive case management services;
  • Provide training, job search assistance, and transportation to reduce barriers to employment and increase household incomes;
  • Increase services for the unsheltered homeless;
  • Center homelessness services around racial equity.

The report is available at