It is not just beauty! Reality does seem to be in the eye of the beholder.
And that is unfortunate. There is a direct line between how the public views homelessness and the policy choices leaders make.
Most people seem to assume homelessness is primarily the fault of the person they see homeless. There is something wrong with the homeless person. They focus on the symptom rather than the cause.
The causes vary greatly…
- the shortage of affordable housing,
- lack of a living wage,
- childhood trauma,
- expensive and inaccessible health care,
- or the countless other reasons that make a person vulnerable to losing their home.
This gap between public perceptions and reality creates a cycle of misunderstanding that reduces public support for the policies we need to solve this crisis.
Getting at the facts
In September of 2020, Invisible People surveyed over 2,500 respondents across 16 cities to understand public attitudes about homelessness, policy preferences, and how the public interprets messages about homelessness. This research explores what people are currently hearing and outlines messaging strategies to reach different public audiences.
For policymakers, advocates, service providers, and anyone else working to end homelessness, this report will be a useful tool in building the public support and political will needed to help end homelessness.
What Does the Public Think about Homelessness?
In communities across the country, homelessness is seen as a major problem that is getting significantly worse.
Nearly three quarters of the public believes homelessness has increased in their community in the past year. The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has intensified the public’s urgency on homelessness, making concerns about the health of unhoused people and a coming wave of evictions and foreclosures top-of-mind for many.
While expert discussions point to income and the availability of affordable housing as the central issue in discussions of homelessness, public perceptions don’t always align with the views of experts.
Driven by local news stories and what people see on the streets, public discussion centers on a few of the most visible negative consequences of homelessness: mental illness and addiction.
Whether discussing the causes of homelessness or solutions to it, many in the public prioritize concerns about addiction and mental health over concerns about housing. While issues of income and affordability are part of the conversation, the visibility of addiction and mental illness give them an outsized role in the public imagination.
The result is a major gap between the public conversation on homelessness and discussions happening in homelessness policy and research spaces.
Effective messaging should work to close that gap, using narratives to move public understanding toward the expert consensus around housing affordability and wages.
In subsequent reflections, I will try to present significant highlights.