When the public thinks about homelessness, what comes to mind is mental illness and drug addiction.
A new report related to homelessness reinforces a gap between what the public thinks and the discussions happening in policy circles. This gap creates a cycle of misunderstanding that reduces public support for the policies needed to solve the crisis.
Los Angeles-based Invisible People, an education-based nonprofit that works to change the narrative of homelessness, is planning to use its report’s findings to fine-tune the messaging to better affect policy change in LA and beyond.
“Our hope is nonprofits and governments and stakeholders will see the importance of messaging and it gets validated by this research,” said Mark Horvath, CEO of Invisible People.
Last fall, more than 2,500 respondents across 16 cities, including Los Angeles, were surveyed to understand public attitudes about homelessness, policy updates, how COVID-19 has impacted homelessness and how the public interprets messages about homelessness. The work formed the basis of the 50-page report, entitled “What America Believes About Homelessness.”
Many in the community blame homelessness on the person experiencing it and point to mental illness and drug addiction rather than the shortage of affordable housing, lack of a living wage, expensive and inaccessible health care, and childhood trauma as the most common drivers.
“The public has a lot of misconceptions,” said Mike Dickerson, co-founder of the advocacy group Ktown for All and the writer of the report. “They aren’t necessarily super invested in this and aren’t digging into the research and looking into reports. That creates some dissonance.”
Horvath stressed the need to be authentic.
“The public has kind of been anaesthetized to the homeless sector and politicians claiming victory,” he said. “We need to message it in a way that builds trust. And this report validates that.”
Horvath knew it was important to establish the research and give the basic tools to advocates, nonprofits, politicians and whoever else is working to influence policy.
“This research is done a lot by different organizations; they don’t release it publicly,” he said. “This is the first time that I know of where this has been released publicly.”
The research also creates important benchmarks. “How do you affect change if you don’t know or establish what it is that people actually believe?” he said. “How do you even start working a narrative change?”
For the past 12 years, Invisible People has used storytelling, journalism education and advocacy to change the narrative of homelessness.
To that end, Horvath, together with Dickerson and Barbara Poppe, a national expert on homelessness, is planning to create webinars and build other online features to train those interested in the topic.
Horvath, who was once homeless himself, concedes that homelessness is best tackled at a local level, and is making his organization available to help local governments.
“Going into 2021, we’re making ourselves available to come in and to do more detailed research on a hyperlocal level and to be able to give recommendations both on messaging and help with execution,” he said.
The research did not observe a lot of differences according to city. However, Los Angeles stood out because of its extremely high rate of unsheltered homelessness.
Horvath pointed out that Proposition HHH and Measure 8 failed to fulfill housing expectations for the homeless and that the crisis has worsened because of the pandemic.
“LA has always been a hornet’s nest when it comes to homelessness. And now, because of the pandemic, things are going to get worse,” Horvath said. “How we message and talk and build trust to the public is going to be crucial moving forward.”
“Street homelessness is a lot more visible in LA than it is in other communities, and one of the findings in the report is that that does have this effect of somewhat increasing negative sentiment,” Dickerson said. “There is more association between homelessness and drugs and mental illness and crime.
“When there are a ton of people living on the streets, they’re going to be people who act out and be very visible in negative ways. We suspect that’s contributing to that,” he added.
While outlining the need to address those concerns, it doesn’t necessarily mean more policing and criminalizing.
“Those were, in fact, the most controversial policies in terms of the public reaction to them. But it does mean that whether you’re a politician or service provider, you need to speak to those concerns in a way that’s direct and addresses the issues that people see,” he said.
The report states that respondents who focus on addiction as a cause of homelessness are more supportive of punitive policies and less supportive of homeless housing.
“In areas with more people living on the streets, residents are more concerned with crime and greater feelings of helplessness. ‘Not in My Backyard’ opinions, such as opposition to shelter or housing in one’s own neighborhood, were associated with opposition to housing solutions more generally, as well as more punitive views towards homeless people,” it stated.
Additionally, gender and political views both impact opinions on homelessness, it found. “Women and those on the left end of the political spectrum express more sympathetic opinions, while men and those on the right hold more punitive views,” the report stated.