California is a land of contradiction as much as it is a land of promise.The wealthiest state and the state with the highest level of poverty. It carries tremendous social and political influence while serving as the butt of national jokes. It has tantalized generations of newcomers in search of fame and fortune — whether through the gold rush, Hollywood or tech booms — while granting it to a disproportionate few. Yet it has remained a beacon of hope to flock toward. Until now.

More than 800,000 Californians left the Golden State between 2021 and 2022. Last year, tens of thousands more were added to the tally. The drastic drop in population even prompted the state to lose a congressional seat for the first time in its history. California has long been held as the core of population growth for the country, yet it’s also struggled with resident retention every year since the start of the new millennium. Population has naturally ebbed and flowed, due in part to factors like international migration, a decrease in births and an increase in deaths. But more recently, people fleeing to other states is the driving force for the dwindling figures. The state now stands on an unprecedented precipice — one where its challenges outweigh its allure.

The housing crisis, worsening crime and climate concerns are at the forefront of the exodus. The state’s housing and rental markets are among the costliest in the country, especially in southern cities like Los Angeles. The National Low Income Housing Coalition reports there are only 24 affordable and available rental homes for every 100 extremely low-income renter households statewide. Other metropolitan hubs like San Francisco have suffered an uptick in high-profile crime — from the fatal downtown stabbing of a tech executive to the carjackings and smashed store windows spreading across the city like contagion. And while people struggle to find housing or fear for their safety, climate change introduces its own hurdles. The state’s sea level rises, its wildfires worsen, its Central Valley sinks lower into the ground and its water management whiplash — from severe droughts to dire floods — further strains resources.

More than 75,000 people experience homelessness in Los Angeles County on any given night. | Frederic J. Brown, Getty Images

All these problems have thrust California into an unflattering national spotlight. When Gov. Gavin Newsom appeared on Fox News’ “Hannity” last June, he grew defensive when asked about the residents who have fled in recent years and about the roster of influential companies who have similarly shipped off. “I love this state,” he pleaded to viewers. “Don’t count us out.” Though, by the urgency heard in his voice, it’s clear how many already have.

‘Our housing crisis is our homeless crisis”

Frankie Arturo Gomez doesn’t know where he’s from. When asked, the 30-year-old lists cities across Southern California: Hesperia, Downey, Bellflower, Los Angeles, Long Beach. No answer feels exactly right. No one city feels like home; due in large part to the fact that he’s almost forgotten what it’s like to have one.

We met at the Long Beach Rescue Mission in December at a cafeteria-style table in the dining hall. Around us, volunteers buzzed by in blue aprons to arrange the place settings: paper napkins and plastic cutlery in front of every seat. The mission is one of hundreds of nonprofits that offer resources like food, clothing and shelter to the homeless community in Los Angeles County. Gomez, more than a year into the mission’s New Life Program, has a place to sleep, to seek counseling for substance abuse and to work as a lead overseeing the kitchen staff. But like any other nonprofit in the area, its resources are limited. “When I was allowed in, it was like a blessing to me,” Gomez says. “I don’t talk about God like that in any type of way, but it was a miracle.”

Gomez has cycled in and out of homelessness since he was 18 years old. His calloused hands fidget nervously as he speaks. He’s not often asked about his past. Before he arrived at Long Beach Rescue Mission, he spent three years living on the streets in Downey and East Los Angeles. He jumped from city to city in search of shelters, only to find how finite residential programs are across Los Angeles County. He’s been turned away from services more times than he can count.

About 30% of the nation’s homeless population resides in the Golden State, and nearly half of that population is in Los Angeles County. The primary culprit — beyond crime, mental illness or substance abuse — is a lack of affordable housing.

Grappling with the problem of homelessness in America, or the housing crisis writ large, begins to some extent in Los Angeles. Think of it this way: About 30 percent of the nation’s homeless population, or 181,399 people, resides in California, and nearly 40 percent of those live in Los Angeles County.

The 2023 Greater Los Angeles Homeless Count estimates more than 75,000 people experience homelessness across the county on any given night. That number is up from the previous year, yet the number of people in interim housing programs remains unchanged at just over 20,000. It’s the most populous and overcrowded county in America, as well as one of the nation’s least affordable housing and rental markets. And it mirrors a problem that plagues the whole state. About 70 percent of homeless Californians live on the streets — more than anywhere else in the country. That leaves people like Gomez with scant resources to support them.

Gomez says he has just over half a year left in his current residential program at the mission. Afterwards, he’s not sure where he’ll go. He hopes to save enough money from working as a kitchen lead to be able to afford a place of his own. For now, that remains a distant hope.

After our conversation, as I drive to downtown Los Angeles, I think about how uncertain he feels for his future, how that uncertainty has lingered now for years. It exists in tandem with a nationwide uncertainty about California’s own future. The shedding of its population is beginning to look less like a fluke and more like a key characteristic for the state’s emerging identity.

More than 75,000 people experience homelessness in Los Angeles County on any given night.

Interstate 110 drops me downtown and immediately I’m within view of several encampments. Encampments near the highway exit, encampments straddling the precarious edge of an overpass, encampments on sidewalks. There are clusters of tattered tents and tarps in every conceivable direction. Just east of here, LA’s famous tent city, Skid Row, unfurls across 50 blocks. Last May, the Biden administration launched a new homelessness initiative that focuses on eliminating barriers to housing. Only six nationwide locations were chosen to spearhead the effort — Los Angeles and the entire state of California are two. “Our housing crisis is our homeless crisis. The lack of access to housing because we don’t have enough product has created our homeless crisis,” says Stephanie Klasky-Gamer, president and CEO of the homeless services nonprofit LA Family Housing. “And there is not one neighborhood across Los Angeles — from the valley to the city, from the westside to downtown — where you don’t see people experiencing homelessness.” The primary culprit behind the crisis — beyond crime, mental illness or substance abuse — is a lack of affordable housing.

A survey published by the nonpartisan Public Policy Institute of California found the cost of housing weighs on the minds of millions of Californians every day. For many, especially in Los Angeles, it’s incentive enough to leave altogether. In 2018, the California Department of Housing and Community development estimated 180,000 new homes needed to be built statewide every year for the next seven years to drive prices down for homeowners and renters in step with the growing affordability gap; fewer than 80,000 homes a year were built over the last decade. Mayor Karen Bass and Newsom have respectively allocated billions of dollars in programs to spur housing construction and shelter options on the city and state level. Yet decades of slow growth land use policies, generations of urban sprawl and bureaucratic barriers to construction have rendered that funding inadequate in keeping up with the pace of the crisis.

“It’s going to take more than three years to envision and finance a project before you even start construction,” Klasky-Gamer says. “When you have 30 years of slow growth strategy, you’re only creating greater barriers for people accessing housing because you’re not building at the pace that the population is growing.”

High prices and demand for housing are not new issues or unique challenges to either America’s most populous state or its most populous county. When those challenges come to a head, however, it’s a warning shot for the rest of the nation. If the maxim “as California goes, so goes the country” remains true, it’s imperative to understand the state’s housing shortage and its inevitable aftershocks, crime among them.

“They know there’s no penalty”

Michael Simpson regained consciousness in his driveway. He didn’t know how he got there. Around him hovered an orbit of paramedics, asking him questions he couldn’t answer, as they wheeled him into an ambulance. The 71-year-old physical education teacher had been found in front of his Richmond, California, home late one October night, sprawled out on the pavement, bleeding from a head wound. The injury was a mystery. The only thing he knew for certain was he’d gotten it some 20 miles away in San Francisco.

Earlier that evening, he’d driven into the city for the memorial service of a close friend. Around 9pm, as he walked back to his car, parked in an alley in the Lower Nob Hill neighborhood, on the periphery of the Tenderloin district, he heard the sound of his Prius chirp open.

At the hospital, the staff told Simpson he’d need 15 stitches to piece his head back together. His skull was fractured in the pattern of a peace symbol, the fissures agape and hemorrhaging. “I couldn’t remember anything. I was in concussion protocol. I could not walk, I could barely talk,” he later told me. “The doctors felt like my abrasions were as a result of a blow, that I was hit with a baseball bat or a pipe in the crown of my head. That’s the only thing that saved me. Otherwise, they said if it had hit me in the side of the head, like on the temple, I would not be with them.” He’d somehow managed to drive half an hour home from the city in a complete blackout as he bled into his fedora. His neurosurgeon speculates that when he arrived home and stood to exit his car, the loss of blood rendered him unconscious.

Top: Even the toniest neighborhoods of San Francisco have seen a rash of shuttered retail and boarded up storefronts in recent years. Bottom: The camp fire in paradise claimed 85 lives and reaped at least $16.5 billion in damage. Today, only 20 percent of the town's pre-fire population of 26,000 call paradise home. | Justin Sullivan, Getty Images

The attack did not appear financially motivated. Simpson still had his keys, his wallet and all his cash. He later contacted the lounge to learn there had been a recent rash of attacks on Polk Street: robberies at gunpoint, passersby yelled at and spit at by unknown instigators. He was told a couple of homeless people live in the alley where he parked, and they react aggressively toward perceived intruders. “They claim that alley is their home and you’re trespassing if you’re in that alley,” he says. Simpson suspects those were the people who attacked him. Though he’ll never get the answer.

He had seen cellphones snatched on the Bay Area Rapid Transit system; he’d watched groups of men try to steal his car’s catalytic converter from his driveway. But those instances were mostly sporadic and confined to late hours of the night. Now he says crime feels constant in San Francisco, the city of his birth. “It’s probably not as bad as some other places across America,” Simpson says, “but it’s definitely lost its shine.” He doesn’t go into the city unless it’s absolutely necessary. “Especially at night. Especially now.”

Dozens of retail stores have shuttered in San Francisco’s Union Square — the core of commerce in the city — since 2020 and dozens more have closed in nearby neighborhoods. Companies like Nordstrom and Whole Foods shut down flagship locations in the area last year. Memos show the retailers framed these decisions around “dynamics of the downtown San Francisco market” and worker safety. Robberies across the remaining luxury shops have intensified; like in July, when a Louis Vuitton, Gucci and Burberry were all hit in the same week. “You have the so-called ‘Snatch and Grab,’ and folks are not being held responsible for it,” says Cheeko Wells, an outreach worker for the city government-led San Francisco Violence Prevention Services. “It’s easier now.” Research from the Public Policy Institute of California ranks the San Francisco Bay Area as the region with the highest rate of property crime in the state, with some 3,036 cases for every 100,000 residents. The Bay Area saw a 24 percent increase in retail theft and commercial robbery as well as a 26 percent increase in commercial burglary from 2019 to 2022.

Much of the blame is assigned to liberal leadership. Chesa Boudin was elected as San Francisco’s district attorney in 2020 after winning by a slim margin of 3,000 votes. He vowed to curb prosecution of “quality-of-life crimes,” or crimes that criminalize poverty and homelessness. That categorization was meant to include offenses like public camping or blocking sidewalks. When his tenure began, however, the rise in property crimes and homicides that coincided with the effects of the pandemic began to look more like the results of his policy. Boudin became known for sending a larger number of cases involving robberies, assaults and petty thefts to pretrial diversion programs — including counseling and rehab — and convicting fewer defendants than his predecessors. Only 18 percent of cases resulted in diversion programs in the year before Boudin’s inauguration. Two years into his appointment, 42 percent of cases were resolved via diversion (rather than court proceedings and potential jail time), allowing an unprecedented number of offenders back on the street.

Boudin’s status as a symbol of prison reform and progressive prosecution quickly made him a target of criticism. One year into his role as district attorney, the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce found 8 in 10 residents reported experiencing more crime. Hundreds more cases of aggravated assault and thousands more thefts were reported to the police department over the previous year. “I really started paying attention,” says Marie Hurabiell, an eighth-generation San Franciscan. Hurabiell is a board member of Stop Crime SF, a community watchdog organization. She joined in 2016 after what she calls a citywide spate of burglaries and thefts, one of which she experienced in her own home. After Boudin’s appointment, Hurabiell took a leave of absence from her job at a tech company for one year to study the effects of his administration. “I had my first thoughts of, ‘I can see why people are leaving.’”

Just over halfway through his four-year term, Boudin was removed from office after opponents and conservative pundits pushed for a recall election. That decision had a much wider margin than his election — more than 20,000 votes. His successor, Brooke Jenkins, told news outlets during Boudin’s recall campaign that “he’s creating a landscape where criminal offenders desire to come here and commit crimes. They know that there’s no penalty.” (Boudin didn’t respond to my interview requests.)

Despite Jenkins’ criticism of her predecessor and her vocal disapproval of his progressive prosecution policies, many of the same conditions that existed under Boudin persist under her tenure. One year after Boudin’s removal from office, robberies in San Francisco increased by 15 percent and motor vehicle thefts by nearly 10 percent. “The criminality is just blatant,” Simpson told me. “You can’t unring that bell.”

In the shadow of the city’s ritzy retail hubs are the open-air drug markets in the Tenderloin district, San Francisco’s highest crime neighborhood. It’s less than a mile away from the tourists and boutiques of upscale Union Square but takes on an entirely separate reputation as a “containment zone,” or a place where illegal activities are tolerated in hopes they don’t happen elsewhere.

A quick walk through a few of the area’s 50 square blocks reveals a confused combination of acclaimed restaurants, drug deals, four-star hotels and public urination — all in broad daylight and within view of City Hall. Drug stores with chained-off aisles, storefronts with plywood-clad windows and vehicles dusted with shards of glass, all part of San Francisco’s new persona, epitomize the Tenderloin. But the district’s foremost problem is not the business closures. It’s the drugs.

Citywide, the number of reported incidents of drug possession, sales and transport has doubled within the last two years, from 2021 to 2023. And in September 2023 alone, 54 people died in the city because of accidental overdose — a third of whom were Tenderloin residents. Brian Clark, special agent in charge of the Drug Enforcement Administration’s San Francisco Field Division, has called the district “ground zero for drug tourism.”

Mayor London Breed made the problem a focus of her first term. Inaugurated in 2018 and the first Black woman elected as mayor of San Francisco, Breed grew up in the city’s Plaza East Public Housing project, a neighborhood notorious for its history of gang violence. Drugs were an impetus of strife among her neighbors and family members, including her brother Napoleon Brown, who dealt and used from a young age. Amid the Tenderloin’s fentanyl epidemic, Breed issued a state of emergency to expand the presence of law enforcement in the area, despite a severe police staffing shortage. The added surveillance contributed to a 121 percent increase in overtime for the police department.

Since then, both the state and federal government have stepped in. Newsom — a former San Francisco mayor — announced the creation of a task force dedicated to investigating the city’s opioid deaths in October. He also tasked California Highway Patrol officers and National Guard troops with canvassing the area. As part of the initiative, agents from the DEA, Federal Bureau of Investigation and the United States Attorney’s Office are working together to prosecute more street-level drug traffickers with federal charges. Still, even after hundreds of arrests and hundreds of pounds of confiscated narcotics, the city saw its most fatal year for drug overdoses on record last year. More than 800 people died across San Francisco.

On a weekday this past December, I witnessed a man and a woman, presumably a couple, occupy a Tenderloin street corner, seemingly frozen in place. The man hovered on the edge of the sidewalk with his head leaned forward, coils of brown hair covering his face. The rest of his body stuck at an obtuse angle, somewhere between standing and lying down. The woman stood with her knees at 90 degrees. Her head was similarly bent forward, her hair gently grazing the ground. The pair was likely nodding off, a symptom of drug use commonly associated with opioids like heroin and fentanyl. But they looked like fixtures of the city, statues suspended in space, the pedestrians who rushed around them either unseeing or unphased.

Mike McQuade for the Deseret News

“Periods of drought ... and periods of plenty”

As the world warms, a new host of climate issues abound. California is hardly immune. Rising oceans, floods, wildfires and droughts. All are worsening and inspiring its residents to abandon ship.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reported the sea level off California’s coast has risen by six inches since 1950. Over the last decade, the rate of that rise has sped up to an added inch every 10 years. More people are at risk of rising oceans in California than anywhere else in America — the state has the greatest number of coastal residents to feel the effects, as well as billions of dollars’ worth of property. Coastal erosion has already begun to reshape its coastline and threaten its wetlands, the majority of which could disappear in the next century. The more wetlands are destroyed, the more things worsen: water pollution, floods and droughts. The droughts, when combined with rising global temperatures, create arid conditions that cause wildfires.

Of the state’s 20 most destructive blazes, 14 occurred within the last decade. They burned down more than three million acres and 41,000 buildings. Fire season, once largely confined to the stretch of time between April and October, is now year-round. What was once record-breaking is now regular. And when the land is as sensitive and susceptible to flames as it’s become, even the most freakish of accidents can ignite the worst tragedies.

Like on November 8, 2018, when a faulty electric transmission line caught fire in Northern California’s Butte County. High winds and ponderosa pine needles fueled the sparks into an inferno as it battered its way to the nearby town of Paradise. What became known as the Camp Fire remains California’s deadliest and most destructive wildfire. It claimed 85 lives, 19,000 buildings, cost at least $16.5 billion in damages and rendered the rural community of 26,000 to ash within a single day. “Nobody thought that the town was going to be incinerated,” Ashley Gilmore, a former resident whose childhood home burned down that year, told me. She’d been living 20 miles away in Chico by the time of the fire — close enough to watch her former community spill out of their small town. She later visited the barren lot where her family’s home once stood. “I don’t see myself at this point ever rebuilding,” Gilmore said between tears. “What it was for me, in my childhood, it will never be that. So I kind of gave up that hope.”

Only about 5,200 people — or about 20 percent of the pre-fire residents — still call the town home. When Gilmore’s parents lost their house of more than four decades, they moved to Salt Lake City, joining the ranks of the more than three million climate migrants across the country who have moved states away to lessen the risks of environmental calamity. A Forbes Home survey published in January found that almost a third of Americans in 2022 said climate change was a motivation for moving. And November’s Fifth National Climate Assessment, hailed by the federal government as the nation’s foremost assessment of climate change, ranked California among the top five states to suffer economic fallout because of climate disasters.

For communities who have already experienced climate-induced catastrophe, or live in persistent fear of it, the cost-benefit analysis of establishing or maintaining roots in California can be foreboding. Especially when risks rise with each passing year.

Almost one-third of Americans in 2022 said climate change was a motivation for moving. And California is ranked among the top five states to suffer economic fallout because of climate disasters.

I drove to Tulare in the dark. Nightfall obscured the pistachio farms and dairy plants that loomed outside my driver’s seat window. Still, I could tell I’d arrived when I noticed the smell. Both the county and its eponymous city are known nationwide as leaders in milk production. The manure- and fertilizer-tinged air quickly makes that clear. Though in recent years, the area has captured national attention by way of another precious resource — in both its abundance and absence.

Tulare County lies in the San Joaquin Valley, which is the southern portion of the state’s Central Valley, the most productive farmland in the country. It’s simultaneously home to California’s agricultural heartbeat and its most challenging water management woes.

The region’s residents and agricultural giants all rely on groundwater pumping to withstand frequent periods of drought. Overdraft causes thousands of wells to fail and renders households across the valley without immediate access to water during dry spells, like the latest three-year drought that ended in 2022 and brought with it some of the driest years in state history. “The biggest concern that the entire San Joaquin Valley has, all the way up to the Sacramento Valley and even other parts of the state for that matter, is the need for water,” says Tom Tucker, agricultural commissioner for Tulare County. “We’re generally either in a drought or at the very least, in a situation where we’re using more water than we’re receiving or we’re storing.” But it’s also a region susceptible to flooding. And in 2023, it endured just that.

In what is perhaps the most illustrative example of California’s cyclical climate concerns, the drought-stricken state suffered back-to-back storms with record amounts of rain and snow all throughout winter. Climate change makes that weather variability, or “precipitation whiplash,” more common and intense. The torrents were fueled further by atmospheric rivers, streams of vapor that can carry hundreds of billions of gallons of water through the air in a single day. “It’s a historic pattern. … There’s periods of drought, and then there’s periods of plenty,” says Tulare Mayor Terry Sayre. “As it progresses through the years, you have more people, more homes, so it changes the severity or the urgency of it.” At least $60 million in agricultural losses were estimated in Tulare County as a result of floods. And that’s because Tulare Lake, empty for almost three decades, reemerged with the storms.

The freshwater lake was once the largest body of water west of the Mississippi River. It spanned almost 800 square miles during wetter years, reaching as far as the San Francisco Bay. But in the 1800s, European settlers chose to drain the lake to pepper the floodplain with crops. The decision resulted in incredibly productive farmland, but it also doomed the surrounding communities with added flood risk.

As agricultural operations suck more water out of the basin’s aquifer, the San Joaquin Valley collapses into itself through a process called subsidence, which means the land is sinking. Subsidence worsens as the aquifer depletes. It damages nearby infrastructure and results in flood-prone communities. Tulare Lake’s 2023 flood drowned hundreds of thousands of acres of farmland. It swallowed homes and rural highways, shut down dairy plants and rendered thousands of agricultural workers unemployed. Worse yet, much of the water couldn’t be preserved with the region’s limited number of reservoirs. Tucker says the infrastructure in place is built for an average year of rainfall. Nothing more. “This 40-year flood bought us one year.”

Statewide efforts to divert what’s left of the lake have stretched on for over a year. It could take years more for the waters to fully recede and restore the submerged farmland. Even then, the threat of flood lingers. Tulare Lake has reemerged four times before 2023; there is no telling if, or when, it will rise again.

As much as California’s condition can shape the attitudes and population of the country at large, the reverse is also true. Yes, Californians cite housing, crime and environmental issues as growing concerns. But, so, too, does the nation. Recent Gallup data shows only 21 percent of adults in the United States believe it’s a good time to buy a house, which is the lowest percentage in almost 50 years; 63 percent of Americans describe nationwide crime as extremely or very serious — the highest point in more than two decades; and 61 percent report actively worrying about global warming. The Golden State’s tribulations are clear and calculable. Though they could be symptomatic of a national problem, more than a state one.

For all of the state’s population decline and misgivings, there are also its reasons to stay. In 2021, a study conducted by the University of California to debunk the idea of a California exodus found a majority of residents still believe in the “California dream.” Despite everything, their search for wealth, fame, or — at the very least — security, goes on.

Frankie Arturo Gomez, the man I met at the Mission in Long Beach, can’t afford to move across state lines in search of a new life. He’s content so long as he finds a place to live where he’s already planted. After the attack in the alley, Michael Simpson limits his visits to San Francisco, but he doesn’t intend to leave the East Bay, where he owns his home and lives mortgage-free, and where he and his wife enjoy the hills and temperate weather. Marie Hurabiell remains steadfast in her aim to fight for a San Francisco with less crime. Even after experiencing an attempted break-in, she can’t bear to leave her family’s home of eight generations. Not yet, at least.

As for me, my time in California had drawn to an end. On my last day in the Central Valley, I visited Tulare Lake, one year after the historic winter that refilled it. Water still stretched for miles and skated along the horizon. Debris and bacteria that flows from the rain-drenched farms had caused algae to form, the water an opaque green, the shoreline dotted with the occasional dead seagull. Victims of avian botulism.

Yet dozens more ducks and shorebirds waded in the temporarily respawned wetland. They, like their human neighbors, forge homes in inhospitable landscapes. For as long as they can withstand it.

This story appears in the March 2024 issue of Deseret Magazine. Learn more about how to subscribe.