Religion, Politics, and Homelessness

Portrait of young homeless man standing outside.

An American flag can be seen next to a tent in a homeless encampment.

America is divided — but by what? Race, religion, political party, education level: all are sources of significant social disunity these days, as people increasingly have trouble understanding or relating to those outside their identity groups.

But in the real world, these identities overlap, intersect and compete with each other in poorly understood ways. Would a college-educated Republican feel she had more in common with a fellow Republican with a high school education, or a Democrat with a college degree? Does a Black Christian feel more affinity with a white Christian or a Black atheist?

Chris Wilson and Molly Ball, "Politics, Race, Religion: What Really Divides Americans?", Time Magazine, 2021

Politics and the Homelessness Conversation

At a time when political polarization runs particularly hot, it’s unsurprising that people’s political views are a major determining factor in their opinions about homelessness. Left-leaning respondents are more confident that homelessness can be solved, more supportive of government interventions, and less concerned about homeless people committing crimes. Right-leaning respondents reported fewer feelings of guilt and more desire to see homeless people’s possessions removed from the street. They were also less likely to believe that all neighborhoods should be involved in providing solutions to homelessness.

Perceptions of Homelessness

By political views

QA9A: For each pair of statements below, please select which one better describes your feelings about homelessness.

Policy Is Rooted in Politics

Differences in political worldview and opinion can also be seen in people’s policy preferences. Right-leaning respondents still see value in supportive policies, but were much less enthusiastic than left-leaning people. On the other hand, a majority or near-majority of right-leaning respondents support enforcement-driven policies, while the left side tends to oppose these. Strikingly, right-leaning people are more than twice as likely as left-leaners to support harsher criminal laws aimed at homeless people.

Policy Views of Homelessness

By political views

Supportive Policies

Enforcement Policies

qA15: Below are a few policies that local governments might implement to address homelessness. For each policy below, please indicate how much you support that policy.

Religion, Policing, and Housing/Shelter

A man in a wheelchair arranges his bag and other items on a bed in a homeless shelter.Religious groups, from missions to soup kitchens to faith-based social service providers, are an important part of our current homeless services system. Because so many religious organizations provide needed services, religious people in general are seen as natural allies in fighting homelessness. To some extent, this is true – people who identified as very religious were more likely than others to support shelter and homeless housing in their neighborhoods. However, religious people are also more conservative in general.

Political Views

By religiousness

Housing/Shelter Support

By religiousness

qD7: How do you identify your political beliefs?
qA17: If there was a plan to build housing for homeless people with on-site services in your neighborhood, would you support or oppose that plan?
qA18: If there was a plan to build a homeless shelter in your neighborhood, would you support or oppose that plan?

Religion: A Moralistic Worldview

A neon cross with the words 'Jesus Saves' inside it.In most of the data, we’ve seen that support for housing and shelter tends to correlate with opposition to policing and criminalization. But very religious people buck that trend, supporting both housing-oriented and police-led responses to homelessness.

In contrast to the more ideologically aligned views of others, very religious Americans hold a more moralistic worldview that tries to hold both government and homeless people to a moral standard, and judging them when they fail. This explains how so many religious respondents end up supporting efforts to help their community’s poorest members while also supporting enforcement efforts that are punitive toward homeless people whose behaviors are viewed as immoral.

Homelessness Policy Support

By religiousness

qA15: Below are a few policies that local governments might implement to address homelessness. For each policy below, please indicate how much you support that policy.

Religiousness and Judgment

The inside of a church.While highly religious people support more compassionate solutions, they also hold much more positive views of police, and more judgmental views toward homeless people. They are more likely to view the presence of homeless people or homelessness projects as a threat to children and community safety, and more likely to believe abstinence from substances should be a requirement for assistance. In contrast to more ideologically consistent positions, religious people’s conservativism is complicated by their more moralistic worldview.

Homelessness and Policing Attitudes

By religiousness

qC2: For each pair of statements below, please select which one better describes your attitudes toward policing.
qC4: How much do you agree or disagree with the following statements?

Religious Views by Ethnicity

A Black mother holds her baby on the porch of a house at sunset.Among those who are very religious, there are significant differences by ethnicity. People who are very religious and non-white expressed more permissive views about street homelessness, more support for government intervention, and were more likely to cite economic causes like evictions and low wages as important causes of homelessness. Notably, people who were very religious and non-white were twice as likely to report having been homeless in their lifetime than very religious white people – again pointing to the importance of lived experiences in shaping views.

Very Religious
+ White
Very Religious
+ Non-White
Homelessness Attitudes
Policing is a compassionate response to street homelessness 62% 48%
Government should do more to help homeless people 55% 65%
Homeless people should be allowed to sleep on sidewalks 35% 43%
Causes of Homelessness
COVID-19 pandemic / economic crisis 49% 59%
Eviction / foreclosure 45% 58%
Low wages 38% 45%
Racism / housing discrimination 23% 30%
Personal Experience
I have been homeless 11% 20%

QA9: For each pair of statements below, please select which one better describes your feelings about homelessness.
qA7: Below are a few issues that may cause people to become homeless. Which of the following do you believe are causes of homelessness in your community?
qA5: People have a number of different experiences related to homelessness. Which of the following statements describe your personal experience with homelessness?

Case Study: When a Church Opposes a Project

In 2020, two Los Angeles service providers, Venice Community Housing and Safe Place for Youth (SPY), partnered to build a 40-unit permanent supportive housing complex in the Venice neighborhood. SPY already operated a drop-in center on the site, and the plan was to construct new housing on top of the existing center, with about half of the units reserved for 18- to 24-year-olds experiencing homelessness.

Near the site was a Catholic Church and school, St. Marks, which led the Archdiocese in Los Angeles to come out in opposition to the project, stating in a letter that:
“The…supportive housing project presents very real dangers to our Catholic school and church community, in particular to our elementary school children and young parishioners.”

The church and parents from the school fought to keep the local planning board from approving the project, which one local media outlet described as a “David and Goliath situation” pitting regular parents against the power of the city. Ironically, while opponents described the project as a threat to local children, the project was intended to help youth experiencing homelessness.

A group of protestors hold signs opposing a homeless shelter in their neighborhood.

A young man holds a sign that reads 'homeless please help'.

The Archdiocese’s opposition was strongly condemned in an LA Times editorial:
“It’s always infuriating to see community groups fighting housing for homeless people. But with homelessness in Los Angeles increasing by double-digit percentages and housing in desperately short supply, it is incomprehensible and disgraceful to see a church and the Archdiocese of Los Angeles fighting even a modest effort to get people permanently housed.”

Venice Community Housing and Safe Place for Youth were able to leverage more supportive community members, as well as strong support from city officials, to overcome this opposition. The planning commission approved the project and it is now under construction.

While churches are often the backbone of local homeless services, support from faith groups cannot be taken for granted. The same dynamics that drive neighborhood opposition also influence local organizations of all kinds, leading even those that are providing some services to oppose the location of other services in their neighborhoods. For advocates, engaging with these groups early and often is crucial to winning support, and ensuring that the only voices leaders hear are not those loudly opposed to progress.