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January 17, 2023

How does the public perceive homelessness

Dr Lígia Teixeira

Much evidence exists of the strong role that perception can play in shaping reality. Unconscious forces and biases can shape the way we see things and these, in turn, shape judgements and decisions we make. This matters not just in social science but policy development, where decision-makers come to a view based both on their own perceptions o fan issue and by taking into account public opinion.

With a societal challenge such as ending homelessness, therefore, how the issue is perceived matters a great deal. For this reason we have worked with Ipsos to produce an annual, in-depth survey of public perceptions of homelessness.

This year’s poll feels important for two reasons. First, this is our third such survey. Three years of data means that we are now at the stage when we have not just snapshots of public perceptions of homelessness but an evidence base that allows us to track any changes in opinion over time. We use many repeat questions for this purpose and the results will grow in significance with each successive survey.

Second, fieldwork for this poll was conducted in the midst of a cost of living crisis in which millions of United Kingdom citizens faced financial pressure from double-digit inflation, especially in the costs of energy, fuel and food. These pressures especially affect people on low incomes who spend a much higher proportion of their earnings or benefits on such items.

One of the stand-out features of our findings is their consistency. Our most recent survey found that 84% of people view homelessness as a very or fairly serious problem, compared with 83% and 86% in the previous two years. Half of people (49%) say that people who are impacted by homelessness are in that situation due to circumstances beyond their control (46% in 2021 and 52% in 2020) while just 20% believe homelessness to be the result of bad choices made by the individuals themselves (24% in 2021 and 17% in 2020). And fewer people think homelessness is an inevitable feature of our society: 45% say homelessness will always happen, down from 47% the previous year and 50% two years earlier.

Other findings are cause for concern: 74% believe homelessness is likely to increase in the next 12 months, up sharply from a year earlier when 62% predicted a rise in homelessness. We have seen two consecutive falls in the share of people who say decisions about homelessness should be made based mostly on evidence of what works: 57%, down from61% in 2021 and from 65% in 2020. Evidence-based decision making is still the approach that commands most public support, but this downward trend is disappointing.

Of greatest concern are the continuing misconceptions highlighted by our surveys. Asked about the characteristics of people experiencing homelessness, the average answer was that 53% are living with a drug or alcohol dependency. The actual figures are between 5% and7%. Another mean answer was that 34% are immigrants to this country, which is more than twice the figure (14%) of people from outside the UK who apply for homeless assistance from a local authority. And people massively overestimate the scale of UK homelessness.On average, people estimate that 21% of adults are currently experiencing homelessness, although this is skewered by some very high answers; the actual figure is around 0.5% of the population.

To solve a problem we must first understand it. We must then build support for action that the evidence suggests will have the most impact. Our latest survey shows we have much work still to do.

Explore our findings in our latest report. If you would like to join us on our mission to end homelessness through the application of data and evidence, sign the pledge to End It With Evidence.

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