2 Surveys Find Majority Sympathetic to Homeless : Housing: Respondents blamed societal forces for the situation. Many believe the federal government should handle the problem.


Public support for homeless people remains high despite some recent reports that Americans are beginning to lose sympathy for them, two independent research groups have reported.

In a survey of residents of Buffalo, N.Y., 66% said they blame societal forces such as unemployment for the plight of the homeless, while 34% said they blame the homeless themselves.

Similarly, a poll of Nashville residents revealed that 58.6% blamed society. The studies were reported Saturday at the annual meeting of the American Psychological Assn. in Boston.

"The public is very supportive of the homeless," said Paul Toro, a psychologist at the State University of New York in Buffalo. "There appears to be support for the homeless across the political spectrum and across the nation."

Toro said he disputes several recent media reports suggesting that the public is becoming fed up with the homeless and their problems. Four major surveys over three years, he said, show public support for helping the homeless has not wavered. And no evidence of weakening public support is apparent in data compiled through April of this year, he said.

"Our data are in conflict with those findings" that the public is losing sympathy, Toro said.

He suggested that the aggressive tactics of some street panhandlers might cause some resentment of the homeless even though general public support has not declined.

Both the Nashville and Buffalo studies found that the public is eager to seek solutions to the homeless crisis.

"Only crime was rated as more important than homelessness," said David Lewis of Vanderbilt University. The Nashville study was based on a telephone poll of 293 people and the Buffalo survey used 240 respondents.

In the Buffalo study, 59% of the respondents said they believed that the homeless problem is worsening, and 58% said they believed that the federal government was most responsible for helping the homeless. Only 19% said they believed that state government was primarily responsible.

More than half of those surveyed, 59%, said they are willing to pay more taxes to help the homeless. Most said they favored increased job training and building more low-cost housing over increasing welfare spending or raising the minimum wage.

Toro said he found that widespread media coverage of homelessness has enlightened the public.

"The public is amazingly knowledgeable about characteristics of the homeless," he said. "If you have a good image about a person--which most Americans have about the homeless--it's easier to support them."

Homelessness is a major issue at the 98th annual APA convention that runs through Tuesday. In other studies on homelessness reported at the convention:

* Pennsylvania State University researchers also found that the public blames society for the problems of the homeless, but the experts cautioned that support for the homeless could easily fall given "the public's limited attention span" and alternative public worries, such as environmental problems.

* Adolescents are living on the streets at a much younger age than they did several years ago and have more problems than adult homeless people, a Berkeley researcher reported. Marjorie Robertson said her study revealed that homeless adolescents have many more health problems than teen-agers living at home. One-quarter of homeless adolescents surveyed in Hollywood rated their health as only fair or poor.

* Nearly one-third of the nation's 1.5 million homeless are veterans, reported Sumner Garte of the Department of Veterans Affairs in Chicago. According to Garte, a high percentage of homeless veterans may have used the military to escape from a poor economic situation. While these men are in the military "they learn skills that are not transferable to the job market," Garte said.

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