In this bi-weekly blog series, Abe Oudshoorn explores recent research on homelessness, and what it means for the provision of services to prevent or end homelessness. Follow the whole series!


To be honest, I grew up fairly sheltered and privileged with no perspective on why people experience housing loss. Even when a family member experienced homelessness during my youth, I gained very little perspective on causes and pathways. It wasn’t until, as a nurse, I began working with people experiencing homelessness that I was given a window into the systemic, structural, and policy elements that create homelessness in our communities. It was this exposure that helped me understand that homelessness isn’t a personal choice, but rather is a system failure.

A common concern in the sector is whether the general public understands this important nuance. As we push for better policies, better prevention, and better funding of essential re-housing services, do we have the support of our communities? The concern is that if our neighbours think that housing loss is simply related to poor personal choices, laziness, or moral failure then they won’t support our advocacy efforts. If continual policy improvement needs to occur at the level of governments then it is best that your average citizen sees governments as responsible for homelessness. But do they?

Well, this is exactly what Jack Tsai, Crystal Lee, Jianxun Shen, Steven Southwick, and Robert Pietrzak set out to discover. They conducted a large survey of 541 American adults across the country to understand “Public Exposure and Attitudes about Homelessness”. Not only did they look at beliefs about homelessness, but they also explored demographic differences around these beliefs, as well as perceived solutions. While there will be nation to nation differences, it is fair to assume there might be similar trends from their findings internationally.

Here are some important findings:

Percieved causes of homelessness
Shortage of affordable housing 78.0%
Shortage of government support 66.4%
Laziness on the part of the homeless themselves 41.7%

 

The message here is clear: The majority of the general public perceive homelessness as more of a structural failure than a personal failure. This is an important indicator that messages from the sector regarding causes are having an impact. This then translates into where people see potential for change:

The Federal Government should spend more money to
Build affordable housing for poor people 86.0%
Give rent subsidies for homeless people 77.2%
Provide more welfare benefits for homeless people 75.0%

 

This is paralleled by generally compassionate and optimistic perspectives regarding those experiencing homelessness:

Compassion and trustworthiness
Feel sad and compassionate for homeless people 89.5%
Makes you angry to think that so many people are homeless 85.9%
Most homeless people would respect their neighbours' property 76.8%
Given the opportunity, most homeless people could take care of a home 76.1%

 

That said, there is still more education required. Those surveyed tend to over-estimate rates of mental illness and addiction. While those sleeping rough or experiencing long-term shelter stays have very high rates of mental illness and/or substance use, across the population of those experiencing homelessness as a whole, large survey stats usually show rates of about 2/3 experiencing mental health challenges and 1/3 experiencing problematic substance use. This was over-estimated in this study:

Health causes of homelessness
Mental illness 88.2%
Drug and alcohol abuse 88.4%

 

Overall, this study offers positive news that the general public is tending to perceive homelessness as more of a structural issue with policy solutions. The study found that men – particularly conservative leaning, wealthy men – were least likely to be compassionate towards housing loss, so offers a potential priority population for ongoing education and knowledge translation. And, given the over-representation of wealthy, white men in government positions, policy advocacy reforms can face an uphill battle in regards to pre-conceptions.

Abe OudshoornWestern University