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Lack of Affordable Housing Is Driving Older Californians Into Homelessness

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An unhoused person sits wrapped up in a blanket in front of a large metro map as another person wearing a pink poncho passes in front of them.
An unhoused person sits outside the entrance to the 7th Street/Metro Center subway station in downtown Los Angeles on March 19, 2023. (Damian Dovarganes/AP)

With modern home prices out of reach for many California residents on fixed incomes, older adults have become the fastest-growing segment of the unhoused population across the state, according to new research released Tuesday from UCSF.

California makes up 30% of the nation’s unhoused population and is home to half of all the country’s unsheltered population, according to the landmark study, which looks at how people in the Golden State become unhoused, experience homelessness, and exit homelessness. Nearly half of all unhoused adults in the study were age 50 or older, and Black and Native American residents were “dramatically overrepresented,” the study shows.

“The results of the study confirm that far too many Californians experience homelessness because they cannot afford housing,” said Dr. Margot Kushel, director of the UCSF Benioff Homelessness and Housing Initiative and principal investigator of the landmark study.

The year-long study included responses from a sample of nearly 3,200 unhoused participants who together are representative of all adults experiencing homelessness statewide.

Contrary to beliefs that people migrate to California for homelessness services, the report found that the vast majority — 90% — of people who are unhoused in California are from California. And 75% of survey respondents were living in the same California county where they lost their housing.

Tomiquia Moss, founder and CEO of All Home, a regional homelessness policy organization, said those statistics mirror what she has encountered here in the Bay Area.

“We don’t see a lot of those migration patterns even across the region. Rising housing costs and stagnant incomes in places where that is exacerbated is where we see significant increases in homelessness,” Moss told KQED. “We saw this in Oakland between 2017 and 2019, when housing costs rose exponentially, incomes dropped or were flat for folks, and homelessness rose 41% during that time period.”

For most respondents, high housing prices were just unsustainable. About 21% of leaseholders cited loss of income as the main reason they lost their housing.

Many of those who held a lease just prior to becoming unhoused reported they were given just 10 days’ notice before they lost their housing, and non-leaseholders had often been given just one day’s notice.

“As structural factors get less forgiving, you need fewer individual factors to become homeless. And the structural factors have gotten worse,” Kushel said. “There aren’t as many unions, pensions, and housing costs have skyrocketed. The disconnect between what people make and what it costs to live is widening and widening.”

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Nearly all participants in the study expressed interest in obtaining housing. However, 89% of all respondents said they can’t afford housing.

The findings are familiar for Patricia Wall, executive director of the Homeless Action Center, an organization that helps people including those experiencing homelessness sign up for programs like supplemental security income.

“I have watched the population of homeless people age. Over the last 10 years particularly, we are seeing more and more clients over the age of 50,” Wall told KQED. “There isn’t the kind of safety net we like to imagine that there is.”

Wall, who has worked closely with the unhoused population for nearly three decades, said she sees over and over again older clients get priced out of their homes and become unhoused when they don’t have a strong enough safety net.

But even some of the options that do exist for people with low or fixed incomes, such as housing vouchers and units in subsidized buildings, have grown incredibly hard to access due to increasing demand and stagnant supply.

“What used to be a resource for seniors has become like winning the lottery,” said Wall. “It takes years to get housing. If you are on top of your game and apply immediately when you see the opening, then your name gets on a list and you’re on there for maybe five years. There just aren’t enough physical units and subsidies available to make the kind of progress we need to make to reduce the number of unsheltered homeless. ”


Many of Wall’s clients are on SSI benefits either because they are too old to work or have a disability that prevents them from working. But the state has not kept pace with population growth in terms of building new affordable housing units, or units that can be made affordable through housing vouchers, leaving many people who could qualify to become unhoused.

“There aren’t enough units for affordable housing,” Wall said.

In addition to highlighting barriers to exiting homelessness, the study also provides six recommendations for government and policymakers. They include increasing access to affordable units to extremely low-income households, either by building or expanding rental subsidies like housing vouchers and making it so more housing units can accept those vouchers.

Also recommended is targeted homelessness prevention, such as financial assistance and legal support, and increased street-level outreach to people who are unsheltered. It also advocates for more robust services for mental health and substance use challenges for people while they are experiencing homelessness and in supportive housing.

Opportunities to increase household income such as employment training and support signing up for benefits also were recommended. And researchers called for racial equity to guide these recommendations.

Several components of the study offer hope as well. At least 86% of respondents said that just $300–$500 could be enough to get them into housing, and 90% believed a housing voucher or a similar option could have prevented their homelessness.

“There’s no question that the current situation is untenable. The question is, how do you allocate scarce resources?” Kushel said. “It was very hard to find anyone who didn’t want housing. When we asked what gets in the way of that, they said, ‘I can’t afford it.’ Period.”


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