Executive Summary

Smiling woman wearing a beanie outside.

Executive Summary

A key finding in our 2020 report was that while people care about homelessness and are generally sympathetic toward homeless people, they are not necessarily devoting much time to thinking about the issue. However, in both 2020 and 2021, the data shows that opinions on homelessness are highly polarized.

Looking beyond the data, we see this playing out every day in cities across the country. Local news stations run serialized reports portraying supposed chaos on the streets. New York, Los Angeles, and Austin have all seen political campaigns that seek to divide housed people from their homeless neighbors, using anti-homeless rhetoric and misinformation to blame homeless people for all manner of community problems.

If people aren’t spending much time thinking about homelessness, what’s driving these highly divided opinions?

The opinions people bring to homelessness are informed by their identity, their experiences, their social context, and their political commitments. Discussions about homelessness inevitably intersect with issues of housing, neighborhood character, crime, policing, race, faith, and the overall political climate. In practice, this means that even without much exposure to information specifically about homelessness, views can be strongly held, especially when they’re reinforced by neighbors and friends.

This report seeks to connect homelessness back to related issues that inform people’s opinions in this area: their feelings about housing and neighborhood development; their opinions of police practices; their race; their faith; and, of course, their general political leanings.

A row of people sit outside a building with all their belongings with them. They are trying to keep warm outside.


Believed homelessness increased in their community this year.

Why criminalization?

A man not wearing a shirt sits on a short wall while a police officer writes him a ticket.Fundamentally, homelessness is an issue of housing. However, enforcement and the criminalization of homelessness have long been a part of local government’s toolkit in addressing homelessness. Criminalization strategies include sit-sleep-lie bans, to camping bans, and anti-panhandling laws. Over the past several years, these conversations have become more urgent, as a successful 2021 ballot measure in Austin and a potential 2022 measure in Los Angeles are putting these questions directly to voters. Some politicians have gravitated to these messages, arguing that enforcement measures will end homelessness on our streets.

Despite these increasingly loud calls for more aggressive enforcement, the public does not view policing as a panacea for homelessness. Most people still view housing, not policing, as the key to solving our crisis – nearly 3 in 4 believe housing is a more important solution than policing. As with last year, enforcement measures remain more controversial than policies providing housing, services, and shelter. While the public does not support blanket anti-homeless policies, there is more support for targeted bans aimed at school zones, as well as measures aimed at clearing sidewalks.

Countering the anti-homeless messages that drive criminalization campaigns will require advocates to speak to the public’s fears. We must address those concerns in a way that doesn’t pit housed people and homeless people against each other. This requires messages that speak to people's shared interests in safe and clean public spaces, and that push back on perspectives that blame and demonize homeless people.

The story was about all of the homeless people camping out near uptown in Charlotte, NC and how property owners wanted to get rid of them. The story is a sad story, because first of all so many people are homeless now, but it is also frustrating because as a property owner you don't want all these people living there and causing a variety of issues. I really can appreciate how difficult the situation must be.

Woman, 67, Charlotte, NC

Quoted statements are verbatim responses from survey respondents

Homelessness, Housing, and Neighborhoods

A tent with a chair and table in front, set up in a park. An apartment building is clearly visible in the background.But crime and policing are not only linked to homelessness. Since the outbreak of mass protests following the death of George Floyd, issues of race and policing have taken center stage in political conversations at the local, state, and federal levels. On all sides, voices have gotten louder, and divisions between community activists and pro-police voices have only grown starker.

These polarized opinions about policing bleed into social issues around homelessness that would seem unrelated to policing. Among those who believe the police are racially biased, there is more support across the board for supportive solutions to homelessness. Those who see the police as unbiased don’t just support enforcement measures, but are more likely to oppose housing and services.

Discussions about homelessness are inevitably tied to questions about what to build and where. Whether we’re looking at affordability issues that drive people into homelessness or attempting to find sites for projects that will help people out of it, policies connected to homelessness will inevitably impact neighborhoods.

When people imagine the future of their neighborhood, the most common changes they want to see are increased safety and more affordable housing prices. These aspirations provide an entry point for advocates, as safety and affordability offer common ground to help connect to the general public and build empathy leading to support for solutions.

There was a perfectly orderly homeless campsite in a grassy empty lot near a library about a mile from my home. I used to walk by it every day & it seemed like the best homeless encampment I'd ever seen. Then I read in the news that they're evacuating the area with no plan to give these people somewhere else to live AND they're going to ticket people who remained in the vacant lot. Ticketing homeless people? It seems insane.

Man, 59, Austin, TX

Quoted statements are verbatim responses from survey respondents

When the public envisions a nice neighborhood, the image they picture is most often full of owner-occupied, single-family homes. When asked what types of housing people want to see more of, these homes are by far the most popular choice. Rental housing in general, but especially large apartment buildings, are not necessarily part of that vision. Homeowners are viewed positively, while renters are viewed more skeptically. The public is particularly skeptical of developers, who are viewed more negatively than homeowners, tenants, or even politicians.

This raises practical concerns for those seeking to build homelessness projects and affordable housing, but it also makes it easier to understand the role of homeowners, and especially homeowners’ associations, in housing and homelessness politics at the neighborhood level. Homeowners are seen as the most legitimate stakeholders in their neighborhoods, meaning their views have outsized importance.

Homeowners as a group are less supportive of projects to house homeless people, and more likely to support measures aimed at anti-homeless enforcement.

They express more concerns about homeless people posing a threat to themselves and their neighborhoods, and more judgmental views on the causes of homelessness.

Of course, these descriptions don’t apply to all homeowners. But the more conservative views of homeowners find expression through homeowners’ associations and other organizations with influence in local politics. In 2019, this dynamic killed a proposed shelter in the Sherman Oaks neighborhood of Los Angeles, as the Sherman Oaks Homeowners’ Association organized protests and threatened to recall their local councilmember.

Homeless encampments are threatening public safety at two public parks I used to go to very often, but I’m too afraid to do so now because of increasing number of crimes committed there.

Woman, 46, Seattle, WA

I saw a woman that was homeless with her kids. She was trying very hard to take care of them and herself. This reminded me of my family when we were struggling through some hard times.

Woman, 27, Charlotte, NC

Quoted statements are verbatim responses from survey respondents

Race, Racism, and Homelessness

Racism is at the center of housing issues in the United States, both historically and in the present day. In the 20th century, as many middle-class white families built wealth through homeownership, black Americans were excluded from this process through red-lining, restrictive covenants, and other formal and informal methods of neighborhood segregation. We see the consequences of discriminatory housing policies on our streets. As the National Alliance to End Homelessness notes, African Americans make up just 13 percent of the general population, but nearly 40 percent of the homeless population.

While the American Dream of single-family homeownership offered opportunities to white residents, it was also a process of racial segregation. Describing this history, KQED’s Erin Baldassari put it this way: “when cities first created neighborhoods where only single-family houses were allowed, it was about more than separating homes from apartments; it was about separating white families from everyone else.” These attitudes cast a shadow over contemporary discussions of homelessness and affordable housing, as comparatively wealthy, disproportionately white homeowners employ racialized rhetoric to resist changes that might bring poor and/or non-white people into neighborhoods. Viewing these responses through a colorblind lens ignores the role racism continues to play in shaping discussions and policy choices about homelessness and poverty.

Man smiling outside a homeless encampment.

Structural racism shapes how we interact with law enforcement, job prospects, and access to resources more generally. It’s also built into our social safety net; a recent study from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities outlines how Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), a central part of our welfare system, has been shaped by “more than a century of false and harmful narratives — such as that Black women are unfit mothers — and paternalistic policies that sought to control Black women’s behavior and compel their labor,” finding that “these ideas and policies still influence TANF today.”

People’s personal experiences with poverty and housing insecurity vary greatly by race, and those differences are apparent in people’s opinions around homelessness. Black Americans are far more likely than white Americans to have experienced homelessness or eviction, or to know a close friend or family member who has. White Americans also hold more conservative political views in general. As a result, different ethnic communities are often having very different conversations about homelessness. When that conversation is closer to home, views on homelessness are more permissive and empathetic. On criminalization, these differences are even greater, reflecting very different views on policing across racial lines.

Politics and Faith

The identities and experiences people carry are a major part of how they come to form their views on any issue. In addition to race, political leaning, and religion are strong determinants in people’s views on homelessness. All three are salient identities in American life, especially at a time when it feels like our divisions are greater than ever.

While political views obviously influence policy preferences, whether someone identifies as right- or left-leaning strongly correlates with their opinions about homeless people, the causes of homelessness, and the appropriate response. Conservative opposition to government programs creates opposition to government-provided shelter and housing, while those on the left are more primed to be critical of approaches that lean on policing and enforcement. Faith also drives significant differences in opinion. Because faith groups are often deeply involved in providing services, it is natural to assume that religious communities are generally supportive of positive solutions. To some extent this is true; despite having more conservative views, highly religious people were more supportive of shelter and housing in their neighborhood. However, they were less supportive of government intervention in those areas, and more supportive than non-religious people of increased policing and enforcement.

There is a closed church nearby that was taken over by [a] homeless encampment. It caused many problems for local residents and businesses. It was cleared out and some people moved to a nearby park ... Cleared out again and moved back to the church. Endless cycle and the problems persist. Now it’s getting colder and there seems to be no solution.

Woman, 60, Seattle, WA

Religion again shows the importance of intersecting factors, as highly religious people’s views vary quite a bit once race is factored in. Among highly religious white people, there is high support for policing, and less focus on the importance of affordability and financial concerns driving homelessness. Non-white highly religious people are more supportive of government action, more likely to have personal experience with homelessness, and are more critical of policing and enforcement measures.

A local church built small houses to help give the homeless a shelter and to help them get back on their feet. To see that story on the news made me happy for those that receive the help.

Woman, 53, Nashville, TN

Quoted statements are verbatim responses from survey respondents

Overcoming Barriers: Putting Homelessness Into Context

While this report points in many directions, the most important takeaway is that discussions of homelessness don’t occur in a vacuum. Maintaining a narrow focus can create the appearance that homelessness solutions are uncontroversial. Who doesn’t want to help someone without a home? But simplifying the issue can mean failing to account for the unexpected barriers that policy changes encounter in the real world. In order to effectively create change, we must identify and confront those barriers.

What these barriers mostly have in common is that they’re local. Every new unit of housing and every shelter bed is in someone’s neighborhood. And whenever a neighborhood changes, even in small ways, someone will be there to loudly resist that change. But there are also people with questions, confusion, and genuine concerns, even if they’re sometimes misguided. If we’re going to succeed in solving homelessness, we need to find ways to uplift authentic voices within local communities that can credibly deliver messages of compassion.

“I have been homeless and I'm currently in that state, so I know exactly what you're talking about. It's hard to live, it's hard to survive, it's hard to do everything because everything cost you three times as much as it normally would. People look at you like you're a piece of dirt and nobody's willing to help you, not even your own family most of time.

Man, 36, Charlotte, NC

Quoted statements are verbatim responses from survey respondents