A recent YouGov poll finds that Americans view homelessness as more of a national problem than a local one, though all levels of government – national, state, and local – rank highly on the list of entities Americans blame when it comes to homelessness. The mental health system is the only entity blamed by more Americans among those polled about, which is unsurprising given that the two most cited causes of homelessness (out of a list of 13 options offered) are addiction and mental illness. Solutions that receive the most support (out of 17 options provided) include increasing support for veterans, mental illness, disabilities, and addiction. Among the least supported options to attempt to solve homelessness are banning and criminalizing it.
Homelessness as a national, local, and personal problem
Americans are twice as likely to say homelessness is a very serious problem in the United States (54% say this) as they are to say it’s a very serious problem in their local community (27% say this). People who live in cities are more likely to identify homelessness as a local problem than people who live in suburbs, towns, or rural areas are. People residing in the Western U.S. view homelessness as more of a local problem than people in the Northeast, Midwest, and South do.
While people are more likely to say homelessness is a national rather than a local problem, they are just as likely to endorse national and local government intervention. Most Americans believe the federal government (69%), as well as state and local governments (66%), should be doing more to address homelessness. Unlike concern over homelessness, there are no differences in support for government intervention based on the type of area that people reside in.
For many people, experiences with homelessness are not only local, they are also personal. More than half of Americans (53%) say they know someone who has been homeless (even if only for a short period of time), including themselves, a family member, a friend, or an acquaintance.
Almost one in five Americans (19%) say they have personally been homeless at some point in their lives. Among the groups analyzed that report above-average rates of ever being homeless are:
- 35% of people with an annual family income under $20,000 have ever been homeless
- 34% of people who report their employment status as “permanently disabled”
- 32% of people without a high-school degree
- 32% of people who identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender
- 27% of people who have served or are serving in the military
The causes of homelessness
Compared to other causes polled about, Americans are most likely to say that the following are major causes of homelessness in the United States:
- Drug and alcohol addiction (66% say it is a major cause of homelessness; 20% say it is a minor cause)
- Mental illness (60% say major cause; 26%, minor cause)
- Poverty (58% major cause; 25% minor cause)
- Lack of affordable housing (57% major cause; 24% minor cause)
Americans are most likely to say the following are not causes of homelessness:
- Racism (32% say it is not a cause of homelessness)
- Lack of jobs (23% say not a cause)
- Gentrification (17% say not a cause)
- Lack of housing supply (16% say not a cause)
Democrats and Republicans disagree on some potential causes of homelessness. Unlike Democrats — who mostly view homelessness as stemming from society-wide issues, such as poverty and a lack of housing supply — Republicans also attribute homelessness to causes that may be classified as individual weaknesses, such as a lack of financial planning or personal responsibility.
Democrats are more likely than Republicans to attribute homelessness to:
- A lack of affordable housing
- A lack of housing supply
- Poor health
- Domestic violence
Republicans are more likely than Democrats to attribute homelessness to:
- Drug and alcohol addiction
- A lack of personal responsibility
- Poor personal-finance skills
Who to blame for homelessness
Who or what do Americans blame for homelessness? Of 13 causes polled, Americans are most likely to say they blame the following a lot for homelessness:
- The mental-health system (42% blame it a lot for homelessness; 35% blame it a little)
- The federal government (39% blame it a lot; 36%, a little)
- State governments (36% a lot; 39% a little)
- Local governments (31% a lot; 43% a little)
The groups that Americans are most likely to say they don’t blame at all include:
- The military (44% don’t blame it at all)
- Non-profits (39% don’t blame at all)
- Billionaires (27% don’t blame at all)
- Real-estate developers (25% don’t blame at all)
When it comes to assigning blame for homelessness, Democrats and Republicans are most likely to point the finger at members of the other party. In addition, Republicans are more likely than Democrats to place blame on homeless people themselves, while Democrats are more likely to blame billionaires, real estate developers, and landlords.
Democrats are more likely than Republicans to say they blame the following for homelessness:
- Real estate developers
- The military
Republicans are more likely than Democrats to say they blame the following for homelessness:
- Homeless people themselves
Support for government intervention
Nearly three in four Americans view housing as a basic human right, and when asked which comes closer to their view, Americans are three times as likely to believe the government can do a lot about homelessness (63% believe this) than to believe homelessness is beyond the government’s control (19%).
Since the 1990s, U.S. government policy on homelessness has shifted to a “housing first” model, which offers people who are homeless permanent housing as quickly as possible, and other supportive services thereafter. This model is in contrast to a prior philosophy of “housing readiness,” which focuses on addressing other issues that may have led to homelessness prior to securing housing.
When asked which approach they prefer, about half of Americans take a “housing first” stance on homelessness, while fewer – about one-third – say that people who are homeless should solve other problems first before seeking housing. Though Republicans are less likely than Democrats to support a “housing first” approach, members of both parties are more likely to take this position than the alternative “housing readiness” view.
We also asked Americans their opinions on 17 specific policy proposals aimed at addressing homelessness. Of these, Americans are most likely to support the following:
- Funding services for veterans (79% support this)
- Funding counseling programs for mental illness (78% support)
- Funding programs for people with disabilities (75% support)
- Funding rehabilitation programs for people with addiction (74% support)
Among the proposals asked about, Americans are more likely to support than to oppose all but one: arresting the homeless. The proposals with the highest levels of opposition include:
- Arresting people who are homeless (65% oppose this)
- Banning homeless encampments (35% oppose)
- Building architecture that prevents homeless people from sleeping or camping in public spaces (33% oppose)
- Strengthening laws around renters’ rights to reduce evictions (25% oppose)
While Democrats and Republicans are equally likely to support some policy proposals – such as funding services for people with mental illness or victims of domestic violence – they disagree on many others. Republicans are more likely than Democrats to support measures that make life difficult for homeless people, such as banning homeless camps and building defensive architecture. Democrats, on the other hand, are more likely to favor funding social services, offering housing support, and incentivizing the building of new housing.
Democrats are more likely than Republicans to support the government taking the following actions to address homelessness:
- Spending more on social services
- Strengthening laws around renters’ rights to reduce evictions
- Building housing for chronically homeless people to permanently live in
- Funding more subsidized housing programs
- Funding more emergency rental assistance programs
- Incentivizing developers to build more housing
- Incentivizing developers to build more low-income housing
- Reducing zoning regulations to try to increase the supply of housing
- Funding more programs for people with disabilities
Republicans are more likely than Democrats to support the government taking the following actions to address homelessness:
- Banning homeless encampments
- Building architecture that prevents homeless people from sleeping or camping in public spaces
- Arresting homeless people and putting them in jail
- Funding more services for veterans
While most Americans support a majority of the policies polled, far fewer are confident that these interventions will be effective at reducing homelessness. Perceptions of effectiveness and support align for at least one policy that most people say government should avoid: arresting and jailing people who are homeless. Fewer than 20% support this or believe it is effective.
Societal treatment of people who are homeless
How do Americans feel when they see people living on the streets in their community? When asked to select from a list of adjectives, a majority of people (62%) reported that seeing this would make them feel sad. About half say they’d feel concerned (49%) and sympathetic (47%). Fewer say they’d feel angry (19%), annoyed (11%), and guilty (10%).
How do Americans feel American society treats people who are homeless? Pairing the findings from our most recent poll with one we conducted earlier in the month, we find that more Americans say people who are homeless face discrimination (44% say a great deal; 37% say a fair amount) than say the same about other racial, religious, and sexual and gender minority groups, including transgender Americans (40% a great deal; 30% a fair amount), Black Americans (35% a great deal; 34% a fair amount), and Muslim Americans (32% a great deal; 38% a fair amount).
A gender gap in views on homelessness
On most questions asked, women were more likely than men to take a sympathetic stance towards people experiencing homelessness. This is consistent with prior research showing that women are more concerned about homelessness and have more compassionate views on the subject. Below, we outline a number of opinions on which women and men differ in our survey:
- Women (63%) are more likely than men (45%) to say homelessness is a very serious problem in the U.S.
- Women (48%) are more likely than men (34%) to say the federal government should be doing much more to address homelessness.
- Women (65%) are more likely than men (48%) to say that a lack of affordable housing is a major cause of homelessness.
- Women (44%) are more likely than men (21%) to say that domestic violence is a major cause of homelessness.
- Women (19%) are less likely than men (29%) to blame homeless people themselves for homelessness.
- Women (79%) are more likely than men (65%) to say that housing is a basic human right.
- Women (72%) are more likely than men (56%) to support funding emergency rental assistance programs.
- Women (13%) are less likely than men (22%) to support arresting and jailing homeless people.
- Women (69%) are more likely than men (54%) to say that seeing someone living on the streets makes them feel sad.
- Women (54%) are more likely than men (33%) to say that people who are homeless face a great deal of discrimination in society.
This poll was conducted on April 19 - 25, 2022, among 1,000 U.S. adult citizens. Explore more on the methodology and data for this poll.
Image: Jonathan Kho Ming Jun on Unsplash