What’s Homelessness Really Like?

A homeless encampment that was threatened by rising waters in Sacramento last month.Credit…Max Whittaker for The New York Times

Yvonne Soy had to move out of her apartment in Contra Costa County because she couldn’t pay her rent. She began living in her car, with her two cats, and tried to get work as a secretary or a legal administrator.

But the showers at the local homeless shelter didn’t open until 8:30 a.m., too late for her to get to work on time. So she began collecting recyclables to afford cat food and litter. Soy, who is now 66, said she was homeless for seven years in total.

“It was pretty much, one, very boring and, two, very boring,” she told The New York Times. “That’s the reason why homeless people go to the library: not just to sleep but to read or use the computer. If you don’t have that, what are you going to do? You’re just going to sit and do nothing. And who can do that for hours at a time?”

Soy is one of 30 people The Times profiled about their experience with homelessness, part of an effort to illuminate the challenges and occasional mundanity of unhoused people’s lives. “Even as homelessness becomes more common, most of it remains hidden by design,” wrote Matthew Thompson, an editor who oversaw the project.

On any given night in the United States, more than 580,000 people may be experiencing homelessness, according to a 2022 report from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development released in December. Thirty percent of them live in California, despite the state’s accounting for 12 percent of the nation’s population.

The Times project focused on the wide range of people’s experiences, highlighting stories of those who were born into homelessness and those who fell into it in their 60s. There are people who ended up on the streets because of a crack addiction or severe mental illness, and others who simply lost their jobs.

Still, many of the stories shared a common thread: Before losing their homes, people had become distanced from friends and family who may have been able to provide financial support or offer them a temporary place to stay, said Aidan Gardiner, who conducted the interviews with another reporter, Susan Shain. Gardiner mentioned James Reed, a 55-year-old man in Santa Clara who became homeless after his parents kicked him out of their house because of debilitating mental health issues.

More on California

  • A Settlement: San Mateo County has agreed to pay $4.5 million to the family of a Black man who died in 2018 after a deputy used a Taser on him during a struggle that began when officers saw him jaywalking.
  • Covid State of Emergency: The state’s coronavirus emergency declaration, which gave Gov. Gavin Newsom broad powers to slow the spread of the virus, is set to expire on Feb. 28.
  • In the Wake of Tragedy: California is reeling after back-to-back mass shootings in Monterey Park and Half Moon Bay.
  • Medical Misinformation: A federal judge has temporarily blocked enforcement of a new law allowing regulators to punish doctors for spreading false or misleading information about Covid-19.

“You see versions of this rejection, or just outright destruction of a social network,” Gardiner told me. “Without that safety net, they just fall right through.”

The stories revealed many paths into homelessness, including the many wildfires that have swept across the West Coast in recent years, Gardiner said. Fifteen of the 20 most destructive fires in California history took place in the past decade.

Ana, who asked to withhold her last name, moved from Oregon to the Santa Cruz Mountains to live with and work for a 93-year-old woman there. In August 2020, a wildfire burned down the woman’s house.

As Ana was heading back home two weeks later, she learned that a wildfire in Talent, Ore., had destroyed the storage unit where she had kept all her belongings. “I had writings, ceramics, wood furniture, important documents, our nest egg, all the photographs from my whole life,” Ana, 70, told The Times.

Since the fires, she has slept in her car and on friends’ couches, and has little stability. “It’s maddening,” she said. “I don’t sleep much. I’m awake all night, crying and praying and trying to figure out what to do.”

For more:

  • Read all 30 stories in our online interactive.

Jacqueline Benitez looking for items in a storage unit for her new apartment.Credit…Ariana Drehsler for The New York Times

The rest of the news

  • Housing vouchers: As the housing crisis deepens in Los Angeles County, one young woman learns that searching for a place of her own is more difficult than ever.
  • D.O.J. budget: The wife of the California attorney general, Rob Bonta, has recused herself from matters related to the State Department of Justice as part of her duties leading a legislative subcommittee that oversees his budget, The Associated Press reports.


  • Hate crimes: A man with a history of making antisemitic comments was charged with federal hate crimes in connection with the shootings of two Jewish men as they were leaving services at synagogues in Los Angeles.
  • Stevens: Stella Stevens, whose turn as an A-list actress in 1960s Hollywood placed her alongside sex symbols like Brigitte Bardot, but who came to resent the male-dominated industry, died on Friday in Los Angeles. She was 84.
  • Reparations model: The Bruce family’s decision to sell Bruce’s Beach, their oceanfront land near Los Angeles, for $20 million set off a debate about reparations.


  • Ogletree courthouse: The Merced County courthouse has been named for Charles James Ogletree Jr., who grew up in poverty in Merced and went on to a distinguished career at Harvard Law School, where he taught Barack and Michelle Obama, The Associated Press reports.


  • Bing chatbot: Microsoft will start limiting conversations with the new chatbot in its Bing search engine to five questions per session and 50 questions per day.
  • Verified accounts: Meta, the parent company of Facebook and Instagram, wants power users to start paying for some of its sites’ features, taking a page out of Twitter’s playbook in charging for verified blue check marks.

Credit…Andrew Scrivani for The New York Times

What we’re eating

Orange marmalade cake.

Spud Point Marina in Bodega Bay.Credit…Jim Wilson/The New York Times

Where we’re traveling

Today’s tip comes from Erika Kotite, who lives in Huntington Beach. Erika recommends Bodega Bay on the Sonoma Coast:

Tell us about your favorite places to visit in California. Email your suggestions to [email protected]. We’ll be sharing more in upcoming editions of the newsletter.

Credit…Lauren Tamaki

And before you go, some good news

Today’s item comes from the same collection of stories about homelessness that I wrote about above.

In 2006, Matthew Kearney lost his trucking job, despite having 20 years of experience. For the next 10 years, he worked odd jobs and lived in his van in San Diego.

Then one day at the local library, he heard a performance by Voices of Our City Choir, a singing group of 30 to 40 people all experiencing homelessness.

“Let me stress: I have zero singing ability, and they don’t care. I was made to feel quite welcome. And it was something I started doing every week,” Kearney told The Times.

“Voices was like an instant family. They were experiencing exactly what I was feeling, and they were experiencing the same hardships and roadblocks. I guess with Voices, it makes me feel like I don’t have to blame myself.”

That community, Kearney said, put him on the road to recovery.

Thanks for reading. We’ll be back tomorrow. — Soumya

P.S. Here’s today’s Mini Crossword.

Briana Scalia contributed to California Today. You can reach the team at [email protected].


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