San Francisco’s “High Disgust Sensitivity” To Homelessness

Raise your hands if you’re in favor of housing homeless people and programs that make it possible.

Now, raise your hands if you support laws imposing bans on sleeping outside or panhandling.

Chances are, in this scenario, you’d see the same set of hands raised favoring both approaches to homelessness. According to a pair of political scientists, that’s not unusual.

Scott Clifford of the University of Houston and Spencer Piston of Boston University studied this phenomenon of dueling impulses by commissioning a public opinion poll. The results were published in the academic journal Political Behavior and summarized in a Washington Post op-ed.

Clifford and Piston found that most respondents supported subsidized housing and government aid for homeless people, while at the same time endorse laws against panhandling, sleeping outdoors, and other homeless activity. They also discovered that this pattern occurs most among a control group that was exposed to news stories mentioning urination, litter, and general uncleanliness — to use their words, people with a “high disgust sensitivity.”

If the results sound to you like something that could be replicated in San Francisco, you’re probably right.

In surveys paid by the city or by organizations such as the local Chamber of Commerce, homelessness often tops the list of important issues. Respondents in the most recent CityBeat poll showed this to be true — 60 percent said that homelessness (coupled with “street behavior”) was the main priority, nine points higher than in the previous year. The sentiment that the crisis is getting worse also prevailed.

Also interesting in the CityBeat survey was the overwhelming support for the City’s Navigation Centers that shelter chronically homeless street folk. More than three-quarters said they would like to have these centers in their own neighborhoods.

Historically, such polls were used to justify campaigns to enact legislation adverse to the homeless community, i.e. the sit-lie law from 2010 or last year’s encampment ban.

“Doing something about homelessness” often pays dividends to elected officials by raising their profiles (*cough, Gavin Newsom; *ahem, Mark Farrell). That “something” is usually a punitive measure. But that strategy seems to be losing their effectiveness in recent years. For most of the 2000s, measures that restrict panhandling and sitting on sidewalks were approved by almost 60 percent of San Francisco voters. Yet, last year’s encampment ban passed with just 53 percent of the vote.

Mayor Ed Lee, somewhat clumsily, promised in 2015 to help tent-dwelling residents in the runup to the following year’s Super Bowl celebrations. But Lee’s promise implied peril to those who won’t accept that help, sounding like an offer homeless people couldn’t refuse.

“We are always going to be supportive, but you’re going to have to leave the street,” he said. “Not just because it’s illegal, but because it’s dangerous.”

To see how the media help shape this public disgust, one needs to look no farther than the San Francisco Chronicle. Take, for example, these recent headlines:

Despite money and effort, homelessness in SF as bad as ever

Shantytown on Vermont Street that won’t go away

Homeless camps becoming entrenched in Oakland

Even a factually correct headline evokes dread:

Fire at SF homeless encampment spreads to Muni warehouse

Encampments are portrayed as unsightly, dangerous and strewn with feces, hypodermic needles and other hazards. The tone of such coverage of encampments resonates with readers who regard homeless people as less than human and post unflattering comments about camp residents. Such was the case recently with Julie Zberg, who created — then quickly took down — a Facebook page that denigrated homeless people.

The clearances of encampments also appear to be governed by these dual impulses.

Civil servants accommodate these feelings of disgust by framing homelessness as health and safety crises, yet also entice camp residents with placement in the Navigation Centers, temporary as it might be.

Those sweeps, until recently, were preceded by the Department of Public Health posting notices at the sites and giving residents 72 hours’ notice to clear out.

It’s understandable that people feel discomfited by the outward signs of extreme poverty. Let’s hope when people feel moved, they move to change the underlying conditions behind them.