Why has Homelessness Increased in California? Are the Causes Different from the Past?

More than one in five homeless people in the United States is in California, according to the UC Berkeley School of Law. Homelessness can be divided into two categories: chronic and episodic. Los Angeles has the highest rate of chronic homelessness of any community in the nation.

There are a number of reasons why homelessness has increased in California. Many of the underlying causes of homelessness have persisted for years. On the other hand, there are some causes of homelessness today that are different from those that have existed historically.

Mental Health Issues Stemming from the Great Recession

Perhaps the most overlooked underlying cause of chronic and episodic homelessness is not widely recognized but does persist. This root cause of homeless in California is an interconnection between the ramifications of the Great Rescission that commenced a decade ago and mental health.

When questioned about causes of homelessness, experts and laypeople alike nearly always include mental health issues on the list. What many times if overlooked is while mental illness certain is a cause of homelessness in some cases, it is also the result of being homeless oftentimes as well. Indeed, some people on the frontlines of addressing the needs of the homeless population maintain that mental illness likely is the result of homelessness more often than it is the cause. Included in this category is the executive director of the Union Rescue Mission in Los Angeles.

There is a cohort of homeless people adding to the increase in people on the street during the past decade that consists of individuals who experienced financial ruin as a result of the Great Recession. These individuals experienced homelessness as a result of these financial issues. When they became homeless, the enjoyed sound mental health overall.

In some cases, even within a fairly short period of time, some these individuals developed mental health issues. Since the onset of the Great Recession, a marked percentage of these people have experienced episodic homelessness, driven largely by ongoing mental health problems that stemmed from initially experiencing homelessness on the heels of the Great Recession. In addition, there is a segment of this cohort that has been consigned to a state of chronic homelessness.

As an aside, the last time that a segment of the homeless population with mental health issues connected to an economic downturn occurred in the aftermath of the Great Depression. A fair observation is that so-called Hoovervilles, Depression-era homeless encampments named after the U.S. President, became home to a rising number of people who developed mental illnesses as a result of being homeless. 

Opioid Crisis and Homelessness

Drug abuse and addiction have long been contributing factors to homelessness in California and across the United States. When it comes to the increase in homelessness by causes not as commonly seen in the past, the opioid crisis must be considered.

The percentage of people addicted to opioids who are part of the homeless population is persistently growing. Although data analysis is ongoing, the opioid crisis is remarkable in the number of people who’ve ended up homeless because of the use of this specific drug. While it is true that the abuse of and addiction not other types of mind altering substances has and does lead to homelessness, the number of opioid addicts that end up on the streets is notably large.

Gentrification and Lack of Affordable Housing

Of course, the lack of affordable housing has long been a contributing factor in regard to homelessness. A trend of fairly recent origin is the manner in which frantic gentrification is contributing to the increase in homelessness in California, including in all major metropolitan areas in the Golden State.

Gentrification has replaced low-cost tenements and motels with high-end condos and the like. Of course, few would contend that tenements and motels were ideal housing options. However, overall, these types of residences have proven far better than the alternative – life on the street.

The gentrification process oftentimes results in what amounts to quite a significant number of people ending up without affordable housing and not able to find suitable alternatives. Thus, literally entire neighborhoods can see residents flushed into a homeless state due to a gentrification project.

In the final analysis, one key aspect of reducing homelessness in California rests upon dealing with underlying causes. Long term solutions to homelessness in California necessitates recognizing these causes and the developing of meaningful programs to address them on a comprehensive and consistent basis throughout the state. This includes understanding that some of the underlying causes of homelessness are more nuanced that many people oftentimes recognize.