Primary Causes of Homelessness in the Bay Area

Arguably having one of the highest homeless populations in the nation, San Francisco reported 8,035 homeless individuals in the 2019 point-in-time street and shelter count. Out of these individuals, 5,180 were unsheltered, while 2,855 were sheltered. The total number was an increase of 1,177 from the previous count in 2017.  

Despite the city’s efforts to house more homeless individuals, the numbers keep increasing. Why is this happening? What are the leading causes of homelessness in the Bay Area? 

Homelessness partially stems from economic reasons, where people may face eviction or job loss. They may also lose access to shelter when a family member passes away or no longer live in the safety net of their family or friends due to interpersonal conflict. Additionally, rapid deindustrialization has led to a decrease in industries such as manufacturing and an increase in the technology industry and has ultimately reinforced economic disparities. The rapid economic changes in tech cities such as San Francisco have driven up costs of living, and those who are working minimum-wage jobs are unable to afford the short-supplied housing. 

Meanwhile, according to the Public Policy Institute of California, top earners in the Bay Area make 12.2 times more than bottom earners. Those in the 90th percentile of incomes earn $384,000 a year, while those in the bottom 10th percentile earn $32,000 a year. The income gap contributes to the overall inequalities that are advancing homelessness.

In San Francisco’s comprehensive report of homelessness count and survey in 2019, 27% of respondents identified as LGBTQ+. These respondents were more likely to have experienced domestic violence and were more likely to experience homeless at a younger age. The disproportionate numbers were also found in racial differences, where 37% of respondents were Black or African American. The overrepresentation of people of color can be traced back to years of racism in the housing market when it was legal to refuse housing to African Americans. Although it is illegal for towns to explicitly refuse housing and realtor services to people of color now, through redlining and realtor steering, there have been lasting impacts on people of color in homelessness.

Perhaps one of the most common factors of homelessness, 18% of respondents in San Francisco’s 2019 homelessness count and survey reported that their primary cause of homelessness was substance abuse. Out of those experiencing chronic homelessness (homelessness for at least a year), 24% reported substance abuse as their primary cause of homelessness. Substance abuse negatively impacts an individual’s daily life, as it is challenging to maintain jobs, housing, and relationships with family and friends. 

Although homelessness in San Francisco is much more complex than those touched on above, it is important to keep in mind that providing shelter to homeless populations is not enough to combat homelessness in the Bay Area. To truly combat homelessness, we must identify inequalities and address the disproportionate gaps in demographics.


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