Oakland surpasses other large California cities in per-capita homelessness

Bay Area’s new homeless epicenter?


di Sarah Ravani e Joaquin Palomino

San Francisco is known for its swelling homeless population, but Oakland has surpassed its neighbor across the bay, and other large cities in California, in a key measure: the concentration of homelessness compared with the number of people living there.

A Chronicle analysis of city numbers on homelessness collected earlier this year found that there were an estimated 742 unsheltered homeless people in Oakland for every 100,000 residents — the highest among the state’s largest cities. The rate is four times higher than San Diego’s and 27% higher than San Francisco’s.

The story is much the same for total homeless, including those in shelters. Los Angeles has the largest homeless population in the state by a wide margin, but on a per-capita basis, Oakland, where the number of people living on the streets or in temporary shelters grew 47% from 2017 to 2019, now has more.

Oakland’s two-year increase was among the biggest of any California city. In 2017, San Francisco had more homeless people than Oakland per capita, but the crisis is spreading.

Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf said the primary cause of homelessness in the city is a shortage of housing.

“I think what went wrong here is that Oakland has finally come on the map has a highly desirable place to live,” Schaaf said. “We have new people moving in here and we aren’t building new housing for them quickly enough. We have not figured out how to replace the loss of redevelopment financing to build more affordable housing.”

Markaya Spikes at her tiny home that was donated by the Oakland School of The Arts in Oakland Calif., on Thursday, July 11, 2019. Spikes lives in a “curbside community” in a ‘tiny home,’ built by non-governmernal homeless advocates. This is not a city-sanctioned site nor is it a city-sanctioned facility (the tiny home). Oakland’s response to the homeless encampments has been community cabins and RV parks. But advocates say that the homeless don’t like the cabins because its a shed and doesn’t feel like a home.

Oakland officials point to what they say is an aggressive, multifaceted strategy to address the crisis that includes community cabin sites, RV safe parking and affordable housing. The city is also setting aside funds for future Navigation Centers and launching a pilot program of self-governed encampments to be run by grassroots organizations.

But the shocking growth in homelessness since 2017 has many advocates questioning the city’s response by calling it a temporary solution that won’t have a lasting impact.

Here’s a look at the scope and nature of the problem in Oakland, and what is being done to address it:

How many homeless people are there in Oakland?

In 2019, Oakland made up nearly half of Alameda County’s overall homeless population. The city had an estimated 861 sheltered homeless people and 3,210 unsheltered people compared with 859 and 1,902, respectively, in 2017.

The 47% increase was a stark reminder of the growing number of people in Oakland who are struggling to remain housed. While some parts of California experienced similar spikes, none of the state’s 22 cities with more than 200,000 residents reviewed by The Chronicle had a higher concentration of homeless people than Oakland — both in total, and those living on the streets.


Sacramento and Stockton have not yet released their total homelessness figures for 2019, but their per-capita unsheltered populations, which are available, were far lower than Oakland’s. Homeless counts track those living on the streets as well as those in temporary shelters — adding up to the total number of homeless.

“People are staying homeless longer, and fewer people are leaving the system to housing,” said Elaine De Coligny, executive director of EveryOne Counts, the organization that does the official homeless count for Alameda County. “The pace at which people are moving back into permanent housing has slowed. The pace at which people are becoming homeless for the first time has gone up, and the length that people are staying homeless before they move back to housing is going up.”

Oakland has an estimated 60 encampments where about 730 people live. The city currently provides portable toilets, wash stations and garbage at 22 of the encampments. County numbers show a growing number of residents living in vehicles — 23% of the county’s overall homeless population live in a car and 22% live in an RV. Sixty-three percent of the population have been homeless for more than a year.

“The stark increases seen in Oakland over the past two years justify an increase in resources from Alameda County and the state,” said Joe DeVries, the assistant to the city administrator. “Our entire region has witnessed a devastating increase in homelessness and any improvement will be the result of a regional shared collaboration.”

The point-in-time survey, which is conducted across the country and reported to the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, does not include people temporarily living in a motel, on a friend’s couch or in other less-than-stable circumstances.

Because the count is done on the last week of January, during the peak of winter, the number of people sleeping outdoors is also likely at its low point.