The Real Root of Homelessness in California: It’s Not What You Think

In California, the growing visibility of homelessness has sparked a flurry of misguided explanations and ineffective solutions. But as a seasoned researcher in the field and a physician based in San Francisco, I’ve seen firsthand how the conventional narrative around substance abuse and mental health issues as the primary causes is a misdiagnosis of the crisis.

Recent findings from Pew Charitable Trusts have shone a light on the real issue at hand: the skyrocketing cost of living. In cities where rent growth remained low, homelessness decreased, suggesting that the heart of the problem is affordability, not addiction or mental health.

Contrary to popular belief, California’s homelessness isn’t exacerbated by a sudden influx of individuals from other states. Data from the rigorous “Statewide Study of People Experiencing Homelessness” in California indicates that a staggering 90% of those without homes lost their last stable housing within the state itself. Furthermore, mental health and substance use issues are not disproportionately high in California compared to other states with lower homelessness rates.

The core of the problem lies in the state’s housing market, where a median monthly income of $960 stands in stark contrast to the median rent of $1,850 for a studio apartment. With such a glaring discrepancy, it’s no wonder that so many find themselves without a roof over their heads.

The myth that individuals experiencing homelessness are resistant to housing is just that—a myth. Permanent supportive housing trials have shown that when given the opportunity, the vast majority of the homeless population accepts housing and thrives, with increased engagement in mental health services and reduced emergency department use.

Some argue that more shelters are the answer, but this is a short-sighted approach. While shelters provide a temporary respite, they don’t solve the underlying issue. Moreover, shelters can be expensive to maintain and often face opposition when it comes to their placement.

California didn’t arrive at this crisis overnight, and it won’t be solved quickly. Years of insufficient and unaffordable housing options have culminated in the current situation. To make real progress, we need to focus on creating deeply affordable housing instead of pouring resources into temporary shelters.

The time has come to reframe our understanding of homelessness in California. By recognizing the economic roots of this crisis, we can begin to implement solutions that address the true cause and move towards a future where every Californian has access to stable, affordable housing.