Exposure to homeless people increases sympathetic public attitudes

March 22, 2004

Most people living in cities have seen or been approached by homeless people asking for food or money, leading many city governments to pass laws restricting or prohibiting panhandling. A Penn State-led study, however, has found that exposure to homeless people, even when vicarious or indirect, actually improves public attitudes toward homelessness.

"Familiarity breeds sympathy rather than contempt," explains Dr. Barrett Lee, professor of sociology and demography. "Anecdotal reports suggest that exposure causes a backlash against homeless people, but despite the stigma associated with homelessness and the often unfavorable conditions surrounding public-homeless encounters, exposure usually makes the public more sympathetic."

Examining the "contact hypothesis," which predicts that contact between members of an in-group (people with housing) and an out-group (homeless people) should improve the attitudes of the in-group toward the out-group, Lee, also research associate of the Population Research Institute at Penn State; Chad Farrell, graduate student in sociology at Penn State; and Dr. Bruce Link of Columbia University extended contact to include several kinds of exposure. They published their results in the March issue of the American Sociological Review.

"Some previous studies restricted the contact hypothesis to an ideal situation: a face-to-face relationship between two parties who have similar characteristics or common goals," Lee explains. "Encounters between domiciled and homeless people rarely satisfy these conditions. "In this study we looked at exposure through four dimensions: third-party information, observation in public places, interaction with homeless people, and having been or knowing someone who is or has been homeless. We found that all four forms of exposure promote sympathetic attitudes toward homelessness," he adds. "Also people who have more exposure to homelessness tend to attribute homelessness to structural causes as opposed to individual causes."

In a separate analysis, the researchers found that people whose only exposure to homelessness is through the media tended to not be as sympathetic.

"Media-only respondents scored lower on overall attitudes," Lee adds. "They are more likely to view homeless people as dangerous and less likely to support homeless rights to public space or express a willingness to sacrifice."

The Penn State researcher adds that media-only respondents tend to be female, older, and rural, mainly living in areas isolated from the most visible manifestations of homelessness. The team also found that experiencing homelessness first-hand had little additional affect on attitudes toward homeless people.

"Some formerly homeless people may actually be hardened by their own success, making them less sympathetic than people who have never been homeless," Lee explains. "Because they have escaped the condition, they believe that others should be able to do the same."

The researchers used the responses of 1,388 adults from a 1990 nationwide telephone survey conducted by Columbia University to examine how contact between domiciled people and homeless people affected the views of the former to the latter.
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Penn State

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