New UCSF Study Shatters Stereotypes of Homeless Californians

There are a lot of myths about people who are homeless in California: They’re from another state. They don’t want a job. They don’t want a home.

A sweeping study published this morning by the University of California, San Francisco, paints a different picture, one of people who were working and living in poverty in the state until they suddenly lost their homes. Not knowing where to turn, they end up on the street, where they endure violence and poor health as they try for years to climb back to stability.

“Something goes wrong, and then everything else falls apart,” said the study’s lead researcher, Dr. Margot Kushel, director of the Benioff Homelessness and Housing Initiative at the university. “Everything in their life gets worse when they lose their housing: their health, their mental health, their substance use.”

She likened it to “a personal doom loop.”

California has struggled for years with severe income inequality, high living costs and a lack of affordable housing, and the state now has more than 171,000 people who are homeless — 30 percent of the national total. The new study found that they tend to be older than average and are disproportionately likely to be Black or Native American.

“This is a problem of this toxic combination of deep poverty and high housing costs,” Kushel said. “We’re a state, like every state in this country, that has a lot of very poor people, and we just don’t have the housing for them.”

Kushel and her team focused on eight counties around the state that reflect a diversity of experiences, rural and urban. For about a year starting in October 2021, they visited encampments and other areas to survey 3,200 adults, and then interviewed 365 of them for up to an hour, sometimes in 110-degree heat.

The researchers were guided throughout by people who used to be homeless, like Claudine Sipili, whose yearlong episode began after a divorce. She coached the researchers on how to temper their eager data collection with conversational graces that made people feel comfortable. “It mattered a lot to me that this was done in the most dignifying way possible,” Sipili, 44, said.

The undertaking began in 2019 when Dr. Mark Ghaly, California’s secretary for health and human services, asked Kushel to see how state policies were affecting people on the street. They wondered not only about who was using California’s services, but also about whom the state was overlooking.

Most interviewees had forestalled their descent into homelessness by doubling up with friends or relatives, only to have those arrangements fall apart. Those who had owned homes often lost them quickly when their income fell. Time and again, people told the researchers that they didn’t know they were going to lose their housing until a few days before it happened.

Researchers then asked what help they sought.

“People were like, ‘What? What help?’” Kushel said. “That was heartbreaking.”

Nearly everyone the researchers spoke to wanted a permanent home again, and nearly half were actively trying to get a job. Most said that an extra $300 a month would have helped them avoid homelessness, and could also help them end it.

Sipili said she hoped people who have never been homeless will see the humanity in the study data and will feel compelled to improve the broader system serving people who are unhoused.

“They assign the blame to the person instead of looking at the system side of it,” she said.

Aidan Gardiner is a reporter with The New York Times. This report first appeared in California Today, copyright 2023, The New York Times.


  1. cough, cough, uh.. B.S. cough, cough…..

    What a “load” of “you know what”.

    They will say and do anything to keep the Non-Profit gravy train rolling.

  2. This is a crisis of 1) mental health 2) drug abuse 3) a network of non-profits that would rather perpetuate homelessness for their own gain than actually deal with the first two issues. This is then all compounded by California’s temperate climate, which makes homelessness more feasible than, say, Chicago in the winter. Until we look at it honestly and deal with it accordingly, we’ll never get it solved. If it was truly a matter of poverty where $300 per month would make a difference, then why wouldn’t those people simply move somewhere more affordable instead of becoming homeless? Because it’s not about affordability.

  3. Help me out here. A person has no money. How can they possibly purchase a bus ticket to move to a less expensive place? Not everyone has a family or friends who can help the, financially. Do you expect a 60 year old woman to hitch hike to that less expensive area? I’m retired and my income comes from social security and state PERS. I had to retire from teaching to due a severe health problem which cut my e pelted retirement income. In all honesty, I’m worried about how I can possibly continue to stay in the house I’ve owned for 23 years. It needs a roof and my HVAC system is on it’s last legs. I have continuing health issues. Inflation truly has made being on a fixed income very frightening. Property taxes continue to rise, food, gas, utilities, health insurance through social security, copays. I could go on and on. My car is 18 years old and has over 200,000 miles on it. I truly live month to month and have no savings. 30 years ago I probably wouldn’t have agreed or understood the outcome of this homeless study. I do now and am scared for myself.

  4. Regarding bus ticket: it’s hard to imagine a situation where someone suddenly becomes homeless overnight without enough money for a bus ticket.
    For your specific situation: I feel for you. Inflation is a massive issue, and I can understand how that would put pressure on a fixed income. That said, if you’ve owned your home for 23 years, the prospects of becoming homeless are again hard to imagine. You can sell it and move to somewhere far less expensive, and reduce your expenses as many retirees do. You can even move to a state without property taxes to solve that burden. Additionally, food, gas, and even utilities are even far lower in other states than they are here in the Bay Area. There are also subsidized senior communities worth looking into. Barring total negligence or gross mismanagement, you’ve got a number of options long before homelessness would be a concern, given the circumstances you’ve described.

  5. The San Jose City Council and the local tenant’s “rights” cabal need to read this report to the end. Besides the fact that 65% partake in narcotics at least three times a week and 82% have mental health issues, something commenters down here below the line have been pointing out for decades, rent control and the culture war they have been waging against landlords is counterproductive.

    Rent Control and its evil brother Just Cause only constrain supply, making rent more expensive. Also, due to the difficulty in evicting, landlords are far more strict on screening and very unlikely to look the other way when a tenant falls behind on rent. The intense hostility presented by the “Law Foundation” also pits landlords vs. tenants in an unnatural and unhealthy way and creates an environment that makes life far more stressful for both than is necessary.

    Cartwright, Jimenez, Arenas, Peralez – You are wrong, you have failed, and you are making things worse for those that are hurting the most.

    What does the author suggest?

    Working with and incentivizing landlords, essentially for economic issues, and dealing with Drug and mental issues.

    Shallow monthly help is a great idea and has been pitched in comments and at meetings and laughed off. Lump sum payouts are a bit harder to qualify for, but I highly recommend them. Ending Just Cause Evictions and incentivizing landlords to use mediation will work. As long as there is Just Cause and the endless war on landlords’ property rights, do not expect voluntary participation, help, assistance, or anything from landlords.

    LIHTC is anathema to the Democratic Party and since King Obama hated it, California followed suit. LIHTC is likely the most effective affordable housing program since the post-WWII GI Bill. Good luck getting more vouchers from the Federal Gov.

    Yet you waste time and energy not on new housing, but making landlord’s lives more complicated. You lose. You people are clueless, you read these reports and conclude – it’s the landlords. More rent control is what will fix homelessness. Opposite. How many more people are you going to send to their death, how many girls are you going to turn out, and how many kids are you going to expose to abuse on the street before you admit your failure?

  6. Nice one SJ Kulack, I especially like your last two sentences.
    Until the “Try Logic”s of the world figure that out, we will get more of the same.

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