California is the U.S. capital for homelessness. What will it take to turn that around?

An outline of the map of California on crumpled cardboard.
An outline of the map of California on a crumpled cardboard sign.
(Los Angeles Times illustration; map via OpenStreetMaps)

Good morning. It’s Monday, April 22. Here’s what you need to know to start your day.

Three cities offer hope on California’s homelessness crisis

After roughly 11 years living on the streets of San Diego, Rachel Hayes moved into an apartment last summer. But adjusting to the roof over her head has been a process. For a while she’d wake up every few hours in the night, unfamiliar with the stillness, solitude and quiet of her own space. She even returned to her tent to sleep on the street some nights.

She felt lucky — and a little guilty — to have a home again when so many of her friends and neighbors don’t.

“I shouldn’t be the only person on this block to get housing,” she said. “If it takes 10-plus years to get housing, there’s something wrong in the system … it’s fixable, but it’s broken.”


California leads the nation in homelessness

Despite tens of billions of dollars allocated in recent years, homelessness has worsened.

The state’s homeless population has climbed 40% over five years. The latest federal estimates show more than 181,000 Californians were unhoused in 2023, with nearly 70% living on the streets.

About half of all unsheltered people living in the U.S. live in the Golden State, according to the California state auditor’s office, which summed up the problem plainly:

“We build only a fraction of the affordable housing residents need.”

And if you thought the state was diligently tracking the outcomes of the programs all those billions fund, my colleague Mackenzie Mays has some bad news for you.

“I’m not interested in funding failure any longer,” Gov. Gavin Newsom said last week. “I want to see results. Everybody wants to see results.”

The systems that respond to homelessness are not working


I spent months speaking to people in power, people doing what they think can help their unhoused neighbors and people who’ve forged a path into housing for themselves.

Everyone told me a version of the same thing: The systems meant to respond to and reduce homelessness mostly fail to get people on paths to secure housing. They pointed to government ineptness, entrenched political inertia or forces beyond local control such as the global pandemic.

“We’re at a place in California, unfortunately, where doing well is often running in place,” said Margot Kushel, a professor of medicine and director of the Benioff Homelessness and Housing Initiative (BHHI) at UC San Francisco.

Cities can pour more resources into the emergency solutions, such as new and larger temporary shelters, Kushel said. That could “remove the problem from the public eye” and might look like an improvement in a city’s metrics.

“But [it’s] not really,” Kushel told me. “And everyone is still homeless.”

A supreme court case could change the equation

A homeless encampment under a freeway overpass.
A homeless encampment under the 101 Freeway on Cahuenga Boulevard in Los Angeles in 2023.
(Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

In rulings over the last nearly 20 years, the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals has said that arresting or fining people who have no access to shelter violates the 8th Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment.

If the Supreme Court reverses the 9th Circuit in a case lawyers are arguing today, city officials and their police forces in the Western states could remove homeless encampments from sidewalks, parks or other public areas.

But moving homeless people around is different than solving homelessness.

A consensus is growing: The problem is housing

While mental health issues and substance abuse play a major role, ultimately it’s poverty that deepens the spiral for people living on the streets. The growing consensus from experts, advocates and government officials is that increasing affordable housing is the key to reducing homelessness.

“In 2023, California had only 24 units of housing available and affordable for every 100 extremely low-income households,” BHHI researchers noted in a recent study.

My colleagues have been diligently reporting on the relationship between housing and homelessness.


Some examples:

And there’s more to unpack.

Rachel Hayes lived on the streets of San Diego for more than a decade before receiving housing in June 2023.
(Courtesy Rachel Hayes)

A broken but fixable system?

When I checked in with her months later, Rachel Hayes had an update: she’d packed up her tent and is living in her apartment with her boyfriend full time. She continues to visit her friends, and advocate for the city to house them.

“It should be a constitutional right to have housing, no matter what the circumstances are,” she said. “We have people’s grandparents living out here. We have young people [like] my neighbor. She’s pregnant. She’s on the streets. That’s inexcusable.”

Rachel hopes that she can heal from the trauma of over a decade of living outside.

“You can’t show weakness on the streets; you always have to be in survival mode and constantly be aware of everything around you,” she told me. “There are times I want to run from housing back to what I’ve known for over the past 10 years. [But] housing is giving me the foundation to fix me.”

Over the next three days, I will take you on a journey across California to unpack what I heard from Rachel and others about the system itself: that it’s broken — but “fixable.”

We’ll head to:

  • Bakersfield, where an intense focus on new metrics helped the city and county solve homelessness. It just didn’t last.
  • San Diego, where some business leaders are floating their own solution.
  • Sacramento, where the unhoused community unionized and signed a first-of-its-kind lease with the city.

Today’s top stories

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Coho salmon are released into the Klamath River in Siskiyou County on April 16, 2024.
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Commentary and opinions

Today’s great reads

A man stands in front of a shelter.
Cesar Augusto stands in front of his shelter. He arrived in Los Angeles roughly 20 years ago from Guatemala. For 15 years he worked as a house painter throughout L.A. County, but he struggled to find jobs after his employer died five years ago.
(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

Along the 110 Freeway, a set of encampments built from repurposed housing materials epitomize the L.A. homelessness crisis. Times reporter Nathan Solis visited and spoke with immigrants who have fashioned their own home in gentrifying Highland Park, finding sanctuary “at a time when so many throughout the region are struggling to get by.”


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For your downtime

A person looks at a book in bed.
Life in a hotel, even for less than a day.
(JJ Geiger / For The Times)

Going out

Staying in

And finally ... a great photo

Show us your favorite place in California! We’re running low on submissions. Send us photos that scream California and we may feature them in an edition of Essential California.

A ladybug explores the sand at a beach.
A ladybug explores the sand at Refugio State Beach in Goleta, Calif., in 2012.
(Kevin Smalley)

Today’s great photo is from Kevin Smalley of West Hollywood: a tiny spotted visitor enjoying Refugio State Beach, in Goleta, Calif.

Kevin writes: “A camping trip to Refugio State Beach in Goleta, CA, provided tons of rock formations, tide pools, palms, and reliable breathtaking sunsets to photograph. But my favorite shot happened when I sat down near the water’s edge to simply admire the view. It seemed so unexpected to find the polka dot creature crawling among sea glass and kelp!”


Have a great day, from the Essential California team

Ryan Fonseca, reporter
Joe Mozingo, deputy Metro editor
Karim Doumar, head of newsletters

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