In an era when each new tragedy appears on our Facebook feeds and smartphone screens within minutes, with donating to the victims as simple as texting a five-digit number, compassion fatigue is quick to set in. The caring public, genuinely interested in helping, faces a rush of ever-changing news — hurricanes and tsunamis, chemical plant disasters, refugee crises, and on and on. It is therefore understandable that ongoing crises like homelessness and hunger may slip off the radar.
But Americans are still concerned about homelessness. A Gallup poll from March of this year found that 43% of us “personally worry about” homelessness and hunger a “great deal,” and 32% a “fair amount.” That’s a full 75% of the public. Just 25% of respondents said they worry about these issues “a little” or “not at all.”
This concern persists even with the budget deficit and the sequester at the top of Washington’s agenda. A Hart Research Associates poll this spring on behalf of the Food Research and Action Center found major resistance to cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. Seven out of 10 respondents said cutting SNAP is the wrong way to reduce the deficit.
Some of this concern may be because homelessness is closer to the average American than often thought. A 2011 poll found that one in four Americans personally know someone who is homeless, with 35% of African-Americans and 32% of respondents between the ages of 18-29 having a homeless acquaintance.
In a statewide poll in Michigan in 2010, 47% of respondents said “homelessness and the risk of homelessness is a serious problem in my community,” and 71% said “being homeless or at risk of becoming homeless could happen to anyone.” In a survey conducted in central Florida a year earlier, 55% of respondents said homelessness was a “major problem.”
That Florida poll says a lot about how we view the homeless. Clear majorities said most homeless people possess “good job skills” (59%) and that “it is hard for homeless people to be safe and free from harm” (79%). Tellingly, three out of five respondents said homeless people can generally not “be identified by appearance alone,” while four out of five said it was not true that “the homeless are more likely than others to commit violent crime” and that programs to aid the homeless “are too expensive.”
Paul Toro of Wayne State University told AlterNet that compassion fatigue about homelessness is largely limited to the media, which has lost interest in the homelessness crisis even though the public has not. But in a face-to-face encounter, things are still different. Paul Boden of the Western Regional Advocacy Project, who was homeless for several years, said, “The closer that poverty is to the face of people that aren’t in poverty, the uglier it is. And the unfortunate part is that often gets manifested as the person is ugly — not the poverty is ugly. And poverty is ugly. It’s unpleasant. It doesn’t smell good.”