Americans want government intervention with homelessness. So why hasn’t there been any?
As the COVID-19 pandemic worsens and we welcome a new administration, homelessness hasn’t seemed to be a priority, or even a concern, for many politicians. This could be because homelessness has often been treated with antipathy. Many Americans feel uncomfortable when talking about it because people don’t know how to solve the problem and prefer to ignore it.
But to what extent does the American public want to see change in government response?
The answer: a lot.
New research reveals 80.2% of Americans think the government has not done enough to help with homelessness, according to a new national survey conducted for Cornell University by the National Opinion Research Center (NORC) in October.
The study reveals key insights for California, which is experiencing homelessness at an all-time high, with rates of homelessness increasing every year. Results may also provide support for government action on homelessness as a political priority for the public during an election year.
The idea is not new. Various localities have attempted to provide some sort of policy mediating the effects of homelessness, with limited success.
People praise the idea of housing urban homeless populations — until this housing is in their neighborhoods or uses their tax dollars. Most legislation has been fraught with inaction, with government officials stalling while the number of people experiencing homelessness continues to rise.
Current data on homelessness also is severely lacking. There is no perfectly accurate count of the homeless population in California today as there isn’t a good way to track those living outside.
Much national opinion data has been historically flawed as well as polls often have lumped in homelessness with the arguably different issues of hunger and food security. This new data gives a clear picture of how Americans nationwide view homelessness specifically in conjunction with government response, or really, lack of response.
Although the majority of respondents indicated a lack of satisfaction with government intervention with homelessness, support varies significantly by demographics. Perhaps surprisingly, results did not vary significantly based on whether the respondent was living in an urban area or a rural one.
Instead, a person’s race and ethnicity, and especially political party identification, is a strong indicator of their beliefs on government response to homelessness.
People of color more frequently believe the government has not done enough for the homeless than white people do. This trend was especially strong among Black and Hispanic respondents, where 87.5% of Black respondents and 88.4% of Hispanic respondents answered that the government had not done enough, compared with 75.4% of white respondents.
These racial and ethnic differences may have more to do with a respondent’s political alignment, though, where divides were the sharpest.
Responses for Democrats and Republicans sharply contrasted, with Democrats much more likely to express disappointment in the government’s handling of homelessness. A staggering 94.7% of Democratic respondents indicated they did not believe the government had done enough, while only 58.1% of Republican respondents shared the same dismay.
This polarization in belief may be part of the reason why nothing seems to get done.
Representatives and policymakers have to decide whether they consider homelessness a legal issue concerning property, an issue of lack of affordable housing or a mental health crisis; and political affiliation may dictate some of their reasoning.
Yet as local and national administrations debate who is responsible and continue to defer action, the situation becomes more dire. COVID-19 has only exacerbated the crisis, with more Americans forced into insecure housing in one of the worst times to be living on the streets.
It is evident America wants to see change now. Conflict over whether this change should occur at a local or broader level is continuing to hold us back and has reached unsustainable levels.
We need to put considerations of ideas of fairness or diversion of blame aside, and instead think about the kind of place we really want to live in. Consider: Would it improve your daily life if homelessness was seriously addressed?
The vast majority of Americans seem to think so. If politicians want to satisfy them, they have to act fast, before dissatisfaction turns to anger.
Genevieve Richards is a sophomore at Cornell University and was born and raised in San Jose.