Why is homelessness so stigmatized? (2023)

While we may never know how many homeless people there are at any given time, estimates suggest that there are far more of them than most people realize. According toAnnual Homeless Assessment Report 2019 (AHAR), submitted to Congress by the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) last year, approximately 568,000 people are homeless in the United States alone. But the term "homeless" covers a wide range of different circumstances, including chronically homeless i.e. H. "Street People", Temporary Homelessness and Crisis or Temporary Homelessness (ex.domestic violence).

While research has long highlighted the medical and psychological consequences of chronic or temporary homelessness, one issue that rarely comes to the fore is the terrible stigma of homelessness. This stigma, often driven by a "not in my backyard" mentality, has inspired numerous anti-homelessness laws in many jurisdictions across the world.

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According to the statistics ofNational Legal Center on Homelessness and Poverty,About 47 percent of the 197 US cities surveyed have "anti-homelessness" laws on their books, leaving homeless people vulnerable to arrest for sitting or loitering in a public place too long. These laws not only help make the homeless "invisible" but also deny them access to basic medical and social services that could improve their quality of life. However, given the popularity of these laws with many voters, any real change is unlikely anytime soon.

But the abuse homeless people face isn't just limited to local statutes. Along with frequent verbal expressions and/oremotional abuseEpisodes are also many victims of homeless violence. Although current statistics are hard to come by, a 2010 US Department of Justice studyreported that 49% of homeless people surveyed experienced violence (including police harassment and violent injuries), compared to 2% of the general population. Due to their often marginal status in society and lack of community support, homeless people rarely report such incidents to the police.temerbeing arrested for "complaining". Rather, this abuse tends to lead to moresocial isolationand a deterioration in their mental health.

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So how pervasive is this anti-homelessness stigma? And what beliefs do people have about homelessness? As an alternative to traditional research using questionnaires and structured interviews, a research team 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 US users, Twitter enables a national collection of popular opinions on various topics. Using a custom Python program, researchers captured 1% of all Twitter posts (or "tweets") containing the word "homeless" between April 1 and June 30, 2013. Of the 1.75 million tweets collected , researchers took a random sample of 6,400 tweets for further analysis. The classification codebook used for the study was developed using 1250 tweets, the rest were included in the study.

Based on their findings, thewere published in a recent issue of the journalstigma and health, the following beliefs about homelessness appeared to be particularly common:

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  • "Homeless people are dirty/unhygienic."Many of the tweets about homeless people included jokes or negative comments about their poor hygiene, unwanted body odor, and propensity for "disgraceful behavior" such as urinating or defecating in public. Few, if any, of these negative tweets mentioned that the homeless in particular had no real alternatives for relieving themselves. There is a widespread shortage of public restrooms across the United States, and businesses often refuse permission to use facilities reserved for customers. Rather than acknowledging this, these tweets often labeled the homeless as irrational and somehow less than human for not keeping themselves clean.
  • "Homeless people are socially deviant."This was especially true of scammers, who were often seen as "cheaters" who pretended to be homeless or begged for money to use on drugs, orAlcoholinstead of food. As such, they were considered unqualified to be beggars and could be safely ignored. As one tweet put it, "When I see a homeless person, I honestly don't know if he's faking it or not, so he doesn't get anything from me." nuisance.
  • "Homeless people are potentially violentsexualpredators".Given the widespread view that homeless people are seen as dirty outcasts prone to antisocial behavior, many people seem comfortable seeing them as hypersexual and a threat to public morals. There also seems to be a chronic fixation on potential contamination through their sexual acts and how this can endanger public health.
  • "Threatening, acting violently and/or criminally against the homeless."Many of the negative tweets about homeless people share stories about their "aggressive begging skills" and their often bizarre behavior that "normal" people find threatening. That the homeless are much more likely to be victimscrime, and not vice versa, is rarely mentioned.
  • "The homeless deserve to be homeless."Many of the tweets evaluated in the study focused on the various problems faced by homeless people, often suggesting that their homelessness was a result of their own bad behavior. Examples are commonsubstance abuse, refusing to seek treatment for their mental illness, or belonging to stigmatized groups such as sex workers or visible minorities. The researchers also found disturbing racist elements in many of the tweets directed at homeless people, most of which the researchers declined to repeat in their study results. The tweets also contained numerous homophobic and anti-aging sentiments.
  • "People are homeless because they are lazy."Many of the tweets condemning the homeless also differentiate people on the street from "normals" who lack their character flaws. This includes tweets like: "Yes, I drink and smoke sometimes, but I'm not going to be homeless, I haveGoalsand I will fulfill them” and “I only give money to the homeless when they are old or disabled. If you're my age, you need a job.
  • Trivializing or making jokes about hate crimes against the homeless.Most disturbingly, some of the tweets also talk about hate crimes against the homeless, real or imagined. Some of the tweets mentioned "beating a bum to death", urinating on a homeless person to "keep him warm", and how one tweeter "kicked a homeless guy's ass for constantly stealing my clubs". While Twitter is, at least in theory, moderated to remove objectionable content, the study found no evidence that moderators took action on these tweets.

Although the tweets collected for this study date back to 2013, there is no real evidence that attitudes towards homelessness have changed since then. At the very least, hostility towards the homeless has likely worsened over the same period due to political and social changes.

Still, there are obvious problems with searching using social media posts, especially since most are anonymous. While there is no way of knowing whether the people posting these tweets are representative of the general population, it seems clear that there is some distribution.whataimed at the homeless. This anger not only poses a serious social problem, it also increases the risk that homeless people will become victims of violence or worse. This widespread anger also makes it harder to address social issues to help the homeless.

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So what can we do about it? In their study, Nathan Kim and his co-authors recommended advocacy and wide publicity.TrainingCampaigns to counteract negative attitudes towards the homeless. They also recommended better housing strategies to get more homeless people off the streets — though finding the will needed for such real change seems unlikely for now. Whether that will change in the future remains to be seen.


Kim NJ, Lin J, Hiller C, Hildebrand C and Auerswald C (2021). Analysis of US tweets about the stigmatization of homelessness. stigma and health. Online Early Release.https://doi.org/10.1037/sah0000251

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1. Breaking Barriers: The Stigma Surrounding Homelessness
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3. When You're Strange: Stigma and the Struggle to End Homelessness in the United States
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4. 'We are labeled the scum of the earth' | People experiencing homelessness talk impact of stigma
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