The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Americans want to help the homeless — as long as they don’t get too close. This explains why.

Los Angeles, Portland and Seattle have declared homelessness a state of emergency. (Jae C. Hong/AP)

In the spring, voters in Los Angeles decided to raise their own sales taxes to alleviate homelessness. Other large American cities — including not just Los Angeles, but also Seattle and Portland — have joined in declaring homelessness a state of emergency in the past couple of years.

But that concern is complicated by a quite different attitude: disgust. In a recent article, we show that disgust helps explain why even though many Americans support increased government aid to homeless people, they also support laws that effectively make homelessness a crime. What’s more, the news media’s approach to reporting on homeless people can activate disgust, increasing public support for policies that make it difficult for the homeless to pull themselves out of poverty and get off the street.

Here’s how we did our research

To examine public attitudes about homelessness, we conducted a national survey of 861 adult U.S. citizens through the survey firm YouGov during October and November 2014. We asked respondents whether they supported two policies aimed at helping homeless people: aid to homeless people and subsidized housing. We also asked whether they supported two “exclusionary” policies: banning panhandling and banning sleeping in public.

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We uncovered a strange pattern. On one hand, majorities support both aid (60 percent) and subsidized housing (65 percent), with only a small percentage opposing these policies — by 19 and 17 percent, respectively. On the other, a majority supports banning panhandling (52 percent) and a plurality supports banning sleeping in public (46 percent) — while only about a quarter of the public opposes these policies, by 23 and 30 percent, respectively.

What’s more, the exclusionary policies are popular even among those who support aid to homeless people: 47 percent of those who favor aid to homeless people also support banning panhandling, while 44 percent support a ban on sleeping in public. Only 29 and 36 percent opposed these policies, while the rest took no position.

So why the apparent contradiction?

In our article, we argue that disgust helps explain why so much of the public supports both policies that transfer resources to homeless people and exclusionary policies that cause them harm.

Disgust is a key component of what psychology often calls the “behavioral immune system” — a set of psychological mechanisms that help prevent contact with pathogens. Our behavioral immune system is overly cautious, however. We tend to perceive others who look atypical as potential sources of disease. Homeless people often lack access to proper health care and sanitation, and they are often covered by the media in ways that refer to disease. As a result, they may be perceived as pathogen threats.

Disgust, then, prompts people to avoid its source, but it doesn’t necessarily cause people to dislike its source. Consider how you might feel about a sick person: you might want to help them while also keeping a careful distance. Disgust might lead much of the public to support policies that exclude homeless people from public life, while leaving public approval for policies to transfer resources to them untouched.

Here’s how we tested our theory on disgust

Some people are more sensitive to disgust than others — in other words, more easily grossed out. Our survey measured disgust sensitivity using the Three Domains of Disgust scale, which asks you to rate how disgusting you find various scenarios, such as finding moldy food in the fridge.

We used this scale to predict attitudes toward homelessness while controlling for a variety of other factors. The graph below shows the predicted level of support for four different homelessness policies, where 0 represents strongly opposing the policy, 50 represents a neutral stance, and 100 represents strongly supporting the policy. The orange bars represent people who rated our disgusting scenarios as only moderately disgusting (the 10th percentile of the scale), while the blue bars represent people who rated the scenarios as extremely disgusting (the 90th percentile of the scale).

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As we expected, people who are more easily disgusted are more likely to support bans on public sleeping and panhandling than those who are less easily disgusted. But they are just as likely to support policies providing aid or housing to homeless people. We also found no evidence that disgust sensitivity predicts more negative attitudes toward homeless people in general.

We also showed that news coverage of homelessness can activate disgust sensitivity by referring to disease and uncleanliness. In an experiment embedded in our survey, respondents were randomly assigned to one of two groups, and each group read a short paragraph about homeless people. In the first (control) group, respondents read a paragraph with generic references to homelessness. In the second (treatment) group, respondents read a story that mentioned concerns about public urination, littering, and keeping communities clean and sanitary.

In the control group, which omitted direct references to disease or sanitation, we found the pattern described above. People who were more sensitive to disgust were about 11 percentage points more likely to support banning panhandling than those less sensitive to disgust, and about 17 percentage points more likely to support banning sleeping in public.

But the reactions shifted among those in the treatment group who read the paragraph with references to disease. Readers sensitive to disgust became 24 points more likely to say panhandling should be banned and 23 points more likely to support bans on sleeping in public. That’s a shift of 13 and 6 percentage points, respectively.

These findings suggest that when media coverage mentions concerns about cleanliness it amplifies the effects of disgust on exclusionary attitudes. Policymakers who want to combat homelessness should bear in mind that much of the public supports their efforts — but only from a distance.

Scott Clifford is an assistant professor of political science at the University of Houston.

Spencer Piston is an assistant professor of political science at Boston University.