Poll: Most Americans now see homeless people in their area every week

A full 54% of Americans now say they "see homeless people in the area where [they] live" at least once a week, according to a new Yahoo News/YouGov poll — and the same number (54%) say they support "building more affordable housing in [their] area" to help address the issue.

Homelessness has been front and center in U.S. politics recently, with newly elected Los Angeles Mayor Karen Bass declaring a state of emergency to confront a worsening crisis in the country's second-largest city and President Biden announcing his plan earlier this week to slash America's total unhoused population (an estimated 582,000) by 25% over the next two years.

“My plan offers a road map for not only getting people into housing but also ensuring that they have access to the support, services and income that allow them to thrive,” Biden said Monday. “It is a plan that is grounded in the best evidence and aims to improve equity and strengthen collaboration at all levels.”

The new Yahoo News/YouGov survey of 1,555 U.S. adults, which was conducted from Dec. 15-19, reflects not just the pervasiveness of the problem — especially after the upheavals of the pandemic — but the possibility of confronting it without the usual level of partisan rancor that plagues so many American policy debates.

Unsurprisingly, Americans who live in cities tend to encounter homeless people more often; just over two-thirds of (68%) of those who self-identify as city dwellers say they see homeless people every week, compared to 50% of those who live in suburbs. But weekly exposure is still strikingly high even among those who live in smaller towns (43%) and rural areas (38%).

Overall, one-third of U.S. adults (33%) say they see homeless people in their area every day.

More Americans than not, meanwhile, sense that homelessness is increasing: 50% say they see more unhoused people in their area than in the past, while just 9% say they see fewer. About one in five (21%) report that their local level of homelessness is the same, and the rest say they’re unsure.

Experts confirm that both shorter-term developments (pandemic disruptions, rising inflation) and longer-term structural issues (housing shortages, zoning restrictions) have exacerbated the problem in recent years.

Interestingly, fewer Republicans (51%) than Democrats (61%) say they see unhoused people in their area at least weekly — but more Republicans (54%) than Democrats (49%) say the number of unhoused people in their area is higher now than in the past. It’s possible that the more visible the issue becomes on a local level, the more urgent it becomes politically.

On that note, most Americans agree that their state and local governments are not doing a good job reducing homelessness, with a full 56% rating the response as either “only fair” (23%) or “poor” (32%) and just 23% rating it “good” (19%) or excellent (4%). This represents a rare area of bipartisan agreement: a majority of both Democrats (slightly more than 50%) and Republicans (58%) give their state and local governments negative marks on homelessness. The most common rating among both groups is “poor.”

So how to move forward? As one might expect, Democrats and Republicans don’t view the various causes of homelessness in precisely the same light. When asked to look at a list of reasons and select all that apply, substance abuse ranks highest among Republicans (80%); lack of affordable housing ranks highest among Democrats (68%). By the same token, nearly two-thirds of Republicans (64%) select “personal choices” as a reason why people are homeless — nearly twice the share of Democrats (36%) who say the same. The left tends to see the issue structurally; the right tends to see it individually.

That said, more than 60% of Americans name mental illness (68%), lack of affordable housing (61%), substance abuse (69%) and economic challenges (62%) as causes of homelessness — and when asked to name the biggest reason, more of them say lack of affordable housing (23%) than anything else.

This, it turns out, aligns with expert consensus. As the Atlantic’s Jerusalem Demas recently put it:

To explain the interplay between structural and individual causes of homelessness, some who study this issue use the analogy of children playing musical chairs. As the game begins, the first kid to become chairless has a sprained ankle. The next few kids are too anxious to play the game effectively. The next few are smaller than the big kids. At the end, a fast, large, confident child sits grinning in the last available seat. You can say that disability or lack of physical strength caused the individual kids to end up chairless. But in this scenario, chairlessness itself is an inevitability: The only reason anyone is without a chair is because there aren't enough of them.

Likewise, “examining who specifically becomes homeless can tell important stories of individual vulnerability created by disability or poverty, domestic violence or divorce,” Demas concluded. “Yet when we have a dire shortage of affordable housing, it’s all but guaranteed that a certain number of people will become homeless.”

The encouraging thing about the Yahoo News/YouGov poll is that while Americans of different political persuasions give different weight to the various causes of homelessness, a full 70% say they favor policies to reduce America’s unhoused population — and most favor building more affordable housing even in the areas where they live.

It has long been thought that local residents who demand a better government response to homelessness will nonetheless balk en masse if that response involves building new housing in their communities (a phenomenon known as NIMBYism, for “not in my backyard”). But in fact, the number of poll respondents who favor “building more permanent affordable housing in your area to help reduce homelessness” (54% favor, 37% oppose) does not differ significantly from the number who favor “building more permanent affordable housing outside your area to help reduce homelessness” (58% favor, 35% oppose). And while Republicans are less inclined than Democrats (70%) or independents (51%) to support YIMBY housing policies (for “yes in my backyard”), nearly half of them (42%) still do.

All told, a greater number of Americans (52%) now select "build more permanent affordable housing" as the thing that should be done to reduce homelessness than select any other option: more than “improve mental health services” (51%), “strengthen access to substance abuse programs” (48%), “create more temporary shelters” (39%), or “get police to crack down on homeless people who break the law” (17%).

And when asked which policy is the single best way to reduce homelessness, a plurality (30%) say “build more permanent affordable housing.” That’s double the second most-popular response (“improve mental health services”), at 16%.


The Yahoo News survey was conducted by YouGov using a nationally representative sample of 1,555 U.S. adults interviewed online from Dec. 15 to 19, 2022. The sample was weighted according to gender, age, race, education, 2020 election turnout and presidential vote, baseline party identification and current voter registration status. Demographic weighting targets come from the 2019 American Community Survey. Baseline party identification is the respondent’s most recent answer given prior to March 15, 2022, and is weighted to the estimated distribution at that time (32% Democratic, 27% Republican). Respondents were selected from YouGov’s opt-in panel to be representative of all U.S. adults. The margin of error is approximately 2.7%.