Why Is Homelessness So Stigmatized?

New media research highlights widespread attitudes about the homeless.

Posted Jun 05, 2021 | Reviewed by Devon Frye

KEY POINTS

  • Widespread stigma surrounding the homeless—because they're seen as "dirty," "deviant," or immoral—makes them more isolated and vulnerable.
  • Such stigma promotes the passage of "anti-homeless" laws criminalizing people for being on the streets.
  • It also makes the homeless more prone to be targets of verbal abuse and violence.
  • Widespread public education campaigns to defuse negative attitudes about the homeless are needed.

Though we may never know how many homeless people there are at any given time, estimates suggest there are far more of them than most people realize. According to the 2019 Annual Homelessness Assessment Report (AHAR) released to Congress last year by the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), there are around 568,000 people currently experiencing homelessness in the United States alone. But the term "homeless" covers a wide range of different circumstances, including the chronically homeless, i.e., "street people," intermittent homeless, and crisis or transitional homeless (such as women in shelters following domestic abuse).

While research has long demonstrated the medical and psychological consequences of being chronically or temporarily homeless, one problem rarely coming to light is the terrible stigma surrounding homelessness. Often driven by a "not in my backyard" mentality, this stigma has inspired numerous anti-homeless laws in many jurisdictions worldwide. 

According to statistics compiled by the National Law Center on Homeless and Poverty, around 47 percent of the 197 U.S. cities studied have "anti-homeless" laws on the books, making the homeless prone to arrest for sitting or loitering in a public place for too long. Not only do such laws help keep homeless people "out of sight," but they also deprive them of access to basic medical and social services that might improve their quality of life. Still, given the popularity of these laws with many voters, real change remains unlikely in the foreseeable future.  

But the abuse that homeless people face is hardly limited to municipal bylaws alone. Along with frequent verbal and/or emotional abuse episodes, many homeless people are also targets of violent acts. While up-to-date statistics are difficult to compile, a 2010 study by the U.S. Department of Justice indicated that 49 percent of homeless individuals surveyed state being victims of violence (including harassment and violent injury from police), compared to 2 percent of the general population. Given their often-marginal status in society and perceived lack of support from the community, homeless people rarely report such episodes to police for fear of being arrested for "complaining." Instead, such abuse tends to lead to greater social isolation and a worsening of their mental health.

So, how prevalent is this anti-homeless stigma? And what kind of beliefs do people have about the homeless? As an alternative to conventional research using questionnaires and structured interviews, a team of researchers led by Nathan Kim of the University of California San Francisco conducted a qualitative research study using Twitter. As a microblogging platform with 49 million monthly U.S. users, Twitter allows for a nationwide sampling of popular opinions on various subjects. Using a custom Python program, the researchers captured one percent of all Twitter posts (or "tweets") containing the word "homeless" between April 1 to June 30, 2013. Out of the 1.75 million tweets collected, the researchers took a random sample of 6,400 tweets for further analysis. The scoring codebook used for the study was developed using 1,250 tweets, with the rest included in the study.

Based on their findings, which were published in a recent issue of the journal Stigma and Health, the following beliefs about homeless people seemed especially common:

  • "Homeless people are dirty/unhygienic." Many of the tweets about homeless people involved jokes or negative comments about their lack of hygiene, undesirable body odor, and often prone to "disgraceful behavior" such as urinating or defecating in public. Few, if any, of these negative tweets mentioned that street people especially had no real alternatives for relieving themselves. There is a widespread lack of public bathrooms in the U.S., and stores often refuse to allow them permission to use facilities reserved for customers. Rather than acknowledging this, these tweets often referred to homeless people as irrational and somehow less than human because they failed to keep clean.  
  • "Homeless people are socially deviant." This was especially true for panhandlers who were often viewed as "scam artists" who were either faking being homeless or begging for money that they would use on drugs or alcohol rather than food. As such, they were seen as having no legitimate need to be panhandlers and could be safely ignored.  As one tweet put it, "When I see a homeless person I honestly don’t know [i]f they're faking or not so they gets nothin from me." This attitude also leads to laws being passed in many cities banning panhandlers or causing them to be arrested as public nuisances.
  • "Homeless people are potentially violent or sexual predators." Given the popular view of homeless people as dirty outcasts prone to antisocial behavior, many people seem to have no problem viewing them as hypersexual and a threat to public morals. There also seems to be a chronic fixation on the potential contamination from their sexual acts and how it could endanger public health.  
  • "Homeless people are threatening, violent, and/or engage in criminal behavior." Many of the negative tweets about homeless people share stories about their "aggressive panhandling" and their often bizarre behavior, which "normals" find threatening. That homeless people are far more likely to be victims of crime, rather than vice versa, is rarely mentioned.
  • "Homeless people deserve to be homeless." Many of the tweets assessed in the study focused on the various problems that homeless people have, which often suggested that their homeless status was the result of their own bad behavior. Examples include frequent substance abuse, refusal to get treatment for their mental illness, or belonging to stigmatized groups such as sex workers or visible minorities. The researchers also found disturbing racist elements to many of the tweets aimed at homeless people, most of which the researchers refused to repeat in their study results. The tweets also included numerous homophobic and anti-age sentiments.  
  • "People are homeless because they are lazy." Many of the tweets condemning homelessness also distinguish between the people on the streets and the "normals" who lack their character flaws. This includes tweets like:  "Yes I drink and smoke sometimes, but I'm m not going to end up homeless, I have goals and I’m going to accomplish them" and “I only give homeless people money if they are old or disabled. if u my age u need to get a **n job. stores pay people to hold signs."
  • Trivializing or joking about hate crimes against the homeless. Most disturbing of all, some of the tweets also talk about hate crimes directed against the homeless, whether real or imagined. Some of the tweets mentioned "curb stomping a hobo to death," urinating on a homeless man to "keep him warm," and how one tweeter "shanked a homeless guy because he kept stealing my tacos." While Twitter is at least theoretically moderated to remove offensive content, the study showed no indication that moderators took any action regarding these tweets.

While the tweets collected for this study were from 2013, there is no real evidence suggesting that attitudes towards the homeless have changed since then. If anything, the anti-homeless hostility has likely gotten worse due to political and social changes occurring over that same period. 

Still, there are obvious problems with research using social media posts, especially since most are anonymous. While there is no way to tell whether the people posting these tweets are representative of the general population, it seems clear that there is some amount of widespread anger directed against the homeless. Not only does this anger represent a serious social problem, but it also increases the risk of homeless people being targeted for violence or worse. Such widespread anger also makes enacting social problems to help the homeless that much is harder to implement.

So, what can we do about it? In their study, Nathan Kim and his co-authors recommended advocacy and widespread public education campaigns to defuse negative attitudes about the homeless. They also recommended better housing strategies to get more homeless people off the streets—though finding the kind of will needed to make that kind of real change seems unlikely for now. Whether that will ever change in the future is anybody's guess.

References

Kim, N. J., Lin, J., Hiller, C., Hildebrand, C., & Auerswald, C. (2021). Analyzing U.S. tweets for stigma against people experiencing homelessness. Stigma and Health. Advance online publication. https://doi.org/10.1037/sah0000251