Compassion, Concern and Conflicted Feelings: New Yorkers on Homelessness and Housing

This is an important study on opinions about homelessness and how to end it instead of manage it. If only we had a poll of the opinions of New Jersey residents. Please share your comments.

Compassion, Concern and Conflicted Feelings: New Yorkers on Homelessness and Housing

Nearly 8 in 10 Call Homelessness Big Problem Locally and Nationally; 1 in 3 Fear Becoming Homeless

New York City – The nonpartisan research group Public Agenda today released a new research study examining New York City residents’ thinking on homelessness and housing issues in which 72 percent agree that “as long as there are Americans who are homeless, our nation has failed to live up to its ideals.” (48% strongly agree and 24 % somewhat agree). The study finds general public consensus on solutions that lean toward investments in prevention, rental assistance and permanent housing – despite reservations about whether homelessness can ever really be eliminated.

Compassion, Concern and Conflicted Feelings: New Yorkers on Homelessness and Housing” reports on an in-depth random telephone survey of 1,002 New Yorkers from across the city and focus groups in every borough. The study says New Yorkers perceive homelessness to be a major problem locally and nationally, one that society has an obligation to address. Eighty-one percent said homelessness is “a big problem” in New York City today.

Some key findings from the study:

67 percent say most homeless people are “homeless because of circumstances beyond their control”

90 percent agree that “everyone has a basic right to shelter” (70% strongly agree and 20% somewhat agree)

85 percent approve of having their tax dollars pay for housing for the homeless (53% strongly approve and 32% approve somewhat)

62 percent would increase public spending on programs for the homeless

96 percent say that benefits for the homeless should be conditional on such things as getting training, employment, and/or substance abuse and mental health treatment. (72% strongly agree and 24% somewhat agree)
For the full report click here.

“This research makes clear that New Yorkers empathize with the plight of the homeless and believe that solving the problem should be near the top of the city government’s list of priorities,” said Public Agenda President Ruth A. Wooden. “Even though the public’s conception of the homeless skews toward the stereotypical image of the adult male with substance abuse and mental problems living on the streets rather than the women and children who actually make up a large portion of the homeless population, New Yorkers still feel strongly about prevention and other progressive solutions. But this disconnected definition of who the homeless are may also be a part of why many believe that homelessness will always be with us.”

“For too long policies and practices around the country related to homelessness have been tantamount to putting a Band-Aid on a gunshot wound. This independent research tells us we are very much on track with the direction of our programs,” said New York City Department of Homeless Services Commissioner Robert V. Hess. “New Yorkers see the importance of moving beyond a system of temporary shelters to one that includes comprehensive preventive services and concrete options for rental assistance and permanent housing.”

New Yorkers’ concerns for the homeless are affected by their own feelings of vulnerability. Affordable housing is New Yorkers’ top concern according to the study, and 89 percent say that “too high” housing costs are an important cause of homelessness (26% say it is most important, 42% say it is very important, and 21 say it is somewhat important). More than one-third (36%) worry that they could become homeless (15% are very worried, 21% somewhat worried), the same percentage feel their families have fallen behind during the past few years and 30 percent know a family member or a friend who has experienced homelessness.

But even more than feelings of vulnerability about housing, New Yorkers’ concerns for the homeless flow from a basic sense that “it just isn’t right.” The public looks at homelessness in ethical terms – that our failure on this issue is an indication that our nation has not lived up to its ideals and a near universal (90%) agreement that “everyone has a basic right to shelter, even if it has to be funded by the government.” (70% strongly agree and 20% somewhat agree)

Thinking Through Solutions

A slight majority (54 percent) of New Yorkers believes that homelessness could be eliminated if money were no object while a large minority (42 percent) says homelessness will always be with us no matter how much we spend. The public supports many of the preventive programs currently being pursued by DHS. Eighty-eight percent favor supportive housing for the homeless, in which medical services and other social-service needs are provided on-site for selected homeless individuals; 83 percent support rental subsidies for the needy to live in regular apartments; and 92% percent view subsidizing more affordable housing as an effective approach to reducing homelessness (46% extremely effective and 46% somewhat effective).

The public is conflicted on priorities. Asked what should be the main priority of the NYC government in dealing with homelessness, 48 percent chose “intervening to keep individuals and families in permanent housing, with shelters only as a last resort,” while 38 percent chose “doing what is necessary to ensure that the temporary shelters are clean and safe,” and 12 percent said “both” (2 percent said “don’t know”).

But How Do We Make it Happen?

While the public voices support for more intensive programs like supportive housing, they are doubtful that any entity – whether it be New York City agencies, private businesses or non-profit charities – would run them well. Even though 85% approve of their tax dollars being used to help pay for housing for the homeless (53% strongly approve and 32% somewhat approve), and 62% say that if they were in charge of the city budget they would increase spending on homeless services, there seems to be relatively little confidence in the delivery system effectively executing those services. Nonprofit charities inspire slightly more confidence than New York City agencies and private businesses (23% express a lot of confidence in nonprofit charities to run supportive housing programs well, 13% have a lot of confidence in private businesses and 12% have a lot of confidence in New York City agencies).

Compassion, Concern and Conflicted Feelings: New Yorkers on Homelessness and Housing” was funded by grants from The Rockefeller Foundation and the Fannie Mae Foundation. Public Agenda also provided a grant for the study from its Wadsworth Program Development Fund. Public Agenda consulted with the New York City Department of Homeless Services in the development of the research. Public Agenda had complete independence from DHS in the research design and analysis. The study was designed, however, to inform DHS as well as other city, state and national policy leaders, the media and the public on public attitudes and understanding of homeless issues, policies and programs in order to better serve the homeless and reduce homelessness.

Other key findings from the study:

68 percent think the city is legally required to provide housing for the homeless.

78 percent agree that homeless people who are mentally ill should be in hospitals for the mentally ill, even if they don’t want to be. (60% strongly agree, 18% somewhat agree)

60 percent say they would “not be upset at all” if rental support housing existed in their neighborhoods; while 48 percent said they would upset them “not at all” if it were proposed that a shelter for homeless people were to be located in their neighborhoods.

Just 27 percent strongly agree that those living in crowded, squalid conditions are truly homeless; and only 23 percent strongly agree that those living with relatives because they cannot afford housing are really homeless.

The reasons most frequently cited by the public as being “most important” in causing homelessness were “housing prices being too high,” “people being evicted because of bankruptcy from medical problems or job loss” and “poor education and work skills” (in that order).

The public’s perception of who is homeless is somewhat distorted from reality. This survey indicates that, when asked to reflect on who is homeless, the public most often thinks of single adult men, alcoholics and drug addicts, and the mentally ill. DHS statistics indicate that among those it was serving in shelter in its fiscal year 2006, on average 39 percent were children and 61 percent were adults, and among the single adults, 25 percent were women and 75 percent were men.
Most don’t believe the government will be there to help them if their family falls on bad times. Sixty-seven percent say they would have only themselves to rely upon.


The findings in “Compassion, Concern and Conflicted Feelings” are based on five focus groups with participants from New York City’s five boroughs and telephone interviews with a national random sample of 1,002 adults living in the city. Interviews were conducted between October 11 and 22, 2006. The margin of error for this study is plus or minus three percentage points for this portion of the sample. Please note that the margin of error is higher when comparing percentages across subgroups.

Public Agenda is a nonprofit organization dedicated to nonpartisan public policy research. Founded in 1975 by former U.S. Secretary of State Cyrus Vance and Daniel Yankelovich, the social scientist and author, Public Agenda is well respected for its influential public opinion surveys and balanced citizen education materials. Its mission is to inject the public’s voice into crucial policy debates. Public Agenda seeks to inform leaders about the public’s views and to engage citizens in discussing complex policy issues.