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Release Date: March 22, 2004

March 22, 2004

Exposure to the Homeless Increases Sympathetic Public Attitudes

Washington, DC —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. Research at Pennsylvania State University, 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 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.”

To examine 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, Research Associate Barrett Lee at the Population Research Institute, extended contact to include several kinds of exposure. Lee worked with Chad Farrell, a graduate student in Sociology at Pennsylvania State, and Bruce Link of Columbia University, and published the results in the current issue of the American Sociological Review (February 2004), a scholarly journal published by the American Sociological Association.

“Some previous studies restricted tests of 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,” Lee continues. “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.” Lee says that media-only respondents tend to be female, older, and rural, mainly living in areas isolated from the most visible manifestations of homelessness.

The researchers also found that experiencing homelessness first-hand had little additional effect 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 toward the latter.

The American Sociological Review, the flagship journal of the American Sociological Association, publishes original works of interest to the discipline in general, new theoretical developments, results of qualitative or quantitative research that advance our understanding of fundamental social processes, and important methodological innovations.

Members of the media interested in a copy of Lee’s article should contact Johanna Ebner in the American Sociological Association Public Information Office (202-383-9005 x332, Questions for the researchers can be directed to Barrett Lee at (814) 863-7430 or by e-mail at

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About the American Sociological Association
The American Sociological Association (, founded in 1905, is a non-profit membership association dedicated to serving sociologists in their work, advancing sociology as a science and profession, and promoting the contributions to and use of sociology by society.