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Data Report

Homelessness in California & the US in 2021: Discourse Trends & Analysis

Top trends in homelessness-related discourse, and what Americans expect from their local government leaders

Inbal Naveh Safir

Inbal Naveh Safir

Director of Strategy & Communications

One of the most painful consequences of the pandemic has been the rise in people experiencing homelessness across the United States - and especially in California. As federal, state, and local government agencies push to rebuild and recover from the pandemic, solving for homelessness will be critical. Read our report on discourse trends for 2021, discussing how sentiment towards homelessness has increased, the impact of homelessness on the local economy, and the expectations Americans have of their local government leaders.

The Current State of Homelessness in California and America

Looking at homelessness statistics in America, it’s clear that one of the most painful consequences of the pandemic has been the rise in people experiencing homelessness across the United States. The New York Times recently put this in context when it published that one-quarter of the nation’s homeless population reside in California. Although the pandemic has certainly exacerbated the issue – and Californian local governments may be feeling this disproportionately- the reality is that the homelessness crisis in the US is now in its fourth consecutive year of growth. This means that as local government agencies begin to rebuild and recover from the pandemic, solving for homelessness is as critical as vaccine drives and economic reopenings.

At Zencity, we decided to use our network of over 200 city and county organizations to analyze the conversations around homelessness taking place on the ground so that local governments could get a better understanding of discourse trends on the topic. Although California cities and counties make up only 20% of Zencity’s 200+ client base, when we applied our sentiment analysis capabilities to discourse in 14 states, 40% of all of the conversations on homelessness across the country were by California residents. In this way, this report is very much a reflection on what Californians have to say about homelessness in their communities.

Key Homelessness Discourse Trends and Takeaways

  • There is 78% more discourse about homelessness now than there was in 2020.
  • Homelessness is directly hindering economic recovery because of the impact Americans report it has on their sense of safety and their comfort levels in enjoying city centers, downtowns, and public spaces. 
  • Homelessness is a priority issue for residents, and they ask that city leaders treat it as such in terms of its projects, investments, and resource-allocation.
  • Residents support city initiatives meant to address homelessness, but object to solutions that place the unhoused near them (NIMBY) or only offer short-term solutions.

Trend #1: Americans and local governments are significantly more engaged and active on the topic of homelessness

In the first half of 2021, resident interactions on the topic of homelessness increased by 78% when compared to the second half of 2020. During this increase, our team of data analysts wrote twice as many insights about or related to the issue of homelessness, and received a significant number of requests directly from local governments, asking for help in understanding what residents were saying and how they feel about homelessness in their communities. Simultaneously, residents were more likely to organically discuss the topic of homelessnesss, even when their local governments were not communicating or proactively working on this issue. This shows an overall increase in interest – on all sides – around this topic.

Trend #2: Discourse around homelessness is more negative than last year

The increase in discourse on the issue of homelessness in 2021 was accompanied by slightly more negative sentiment around this issue than what was seen prior. In July-December 2020, sentiment analysis shows roughly equal levels of positive and negative sentiment. But, from January-June 2021, whereas positive sentiment remained constant at 13%, negative sentiment increased by 3 percentage points, indicating an increase in critical and dissatisfied conversations on the issue of homelessness across cities and counties.

Discourse on homelessness in California

Trend #3: Homelessness in America directly affects sense of safety and comfort levels with enjoying city center and public spaces

Based on Zencity’s insights on the topic of homelessness in America, spanning 14 states, the issue is most often discussed in the context of a sense of safety and feelings of well-being in a city. Moreover, homelessness and homeless encampments were directly mentioned as deterrents to spending leisure and shopping time in city centers and downtown areas, to enjoying city parks, and to using public transportation – all of which have a direct negative impact on local spending

Trend # 4: Homelessness is not just an outcome of the economic crisis caused by the pandemic, it is also an obstacle to economic recovery and “getting back to normal” – preventing residents from enjoying their city’s retail and leisure areas

As most Zencities and counties are turning their sights to post-pandemic recovery, especially when it comes to local businesses and the local economy, homelessness emerges as a central deterrent. Discourse commonly mentioned homelessness in conjunction with the local economy and a cause for avoiding city parks, facilities, and shopping areas. As more and more cities encourage their residents to support local businesses by going out and spending money, the response often includes reference to the homeless, and often safety as well.Homelessness statistics around topical discourse

Trend #5: Homelessness is a strategic priority for residents

Across many Zen-communities, the issue of homelessness was often raised by residents in response to news of public spending in other areas, such as new initiatives around planning and development, public transportation, and ARPA allocations. City initiatives were often met with pushback and demands that public attention and resources should be diverted to resolving the homelessness crisis before progressing and investing in other directions. Residents went even further criticizing projects — especially when related to public transit — and blaming them for contributing to and exacerbating the homelessness crisis. All in all, homelessness data shows residents trended in countering new initiatives with demands that homelessness be the top city priority, and be addressed first-and-foremost before other priority areas. 

Trend #6: Residents support local governments’ initiatives addressing homelessness, but with a critical eye

Given that discourse trends showed that homelessness is a top strategic priority for Americans, it should be no surprise that when local governments try to solve for homelessness, the response is overall positive but residents are very engaged in the how. When cities and counties introduce mitigation measures and solutions, the initiatives are often drivers of positive sentiment, but with some pushback.

Most often, residents express objection to the proposed location of homeless shelters, and specifically to having the shelter near residential areas, schools, or shopping areas. Homelessness data shows that while residents are interested in seeing the issue addressed, they prefer to have homeless shelters and centers located outside of residential areas.

Another common criticism is that certain solutions are insufficient and too short term – for example shelters – because they fail to address root causes of homelessness. Instead, residents raise longer-term remedies like affordable housing, mental health services, and more widespread support for the unhoused.

Trend #7: Where money is involved, residents are by and large on board with supporting funds to solve for homelessness—unless police departments are paying

The issue of funding for homelessness initiatives rarely arose in the discourse as a source of opposition. It makes sense: as residents often identified homelessness as a priority issue, they were less likely to voice objections to using city resources to address it. The one notable exception is in cases where funding for homelessness solutions came from police or law enforcement budgets, as was the case in some cities that diverted police funds to social services. In these cases we saw a clear trend in residents’ claiming that police funding is necessary to maintain public safety – especially given that the homeless populations are seen as public safety threats.

This recurring theme teaches us that residents conflate homelessness with a lack of safety (as seen above) and that such initiatives solving for homelessness are most effective when they are communicated alongside assurances about the safety measures and enforcement that would be enacted.

Furthermore, residents are more likely to respond favorably to homelessness initiatives when these are perceived as comprehensive and designed to tackle root causes of homelessness rather than provide temporary solutions, or solutions that simply congregate and provide aid to unhoused individuals rather than change their status from unhoused.

resident sentiment data on homelessness in America

How Zencity can help you evaluate resident sentiment around homelessness in your city

Zencity makes it easier to understand how your community feels about homelessness – and how to respond. By collecting and analyzing resident input, Zencity helps give local government leaders insight into both their resident priorities and the impact of their initiatives, paving the way for strategic decisions based on community needs. Through a combination of organic online feedback and proactive topic-specific surveys, Zencity can help leaders identify trends and act on problem areas before they become too big. 

In the case of homelessness, Zencity can help cities and counties understand what aspects of homelessness are most concerning to residents, whether their resource allocation is hitting the mark, and whether new or adapted initiatives help to alleviate negative resident sentiment. A great example is the work we’re doing with the City of Redondo Beach. Redondo Beach is using Zencity’s community survey tool to tackle public safety issues related to homelessness and allocate law enforcement time and resources towards this. You can read more about their work here

With data collected from more than 200 cities, Zencity can also show local government leaders how other similar communities are tackling homelessness as well as other issues that matter to America, and how their efforts compare. Perhaps most importantly, tracking the discourse about homelessness has a trickle-down effect, giving city and county managers a better understanding of overall resident satisfaction and priorities.

Zencity is uniquely positioned at the heart of the important issues of our time. Let us help you solve for your residents and tackle homelessness in your community.