The LA Times commissioned a poll of LA County residents asking them what they considered to be the pressing issues facing the city. The result was close to unanimous with 95 percent of respondents saying homelessness was a serious concern. The Times notes that’s a big change from as recently as 2005 when only about 2 percent of poll respondents considered homelessness a pressing issue. The sudden increase in the number of homeless, up to 59,000 in LA County this year, seems to have changed residents’ outlook. The poll reveals some conflicting answers about what people believe is responsible for homelessness:

In answering one question, 49% said homelessness is “primarily” the result of a lack of affordable housing and wages that aren’t keeping up with the cost of living. By contrast, 26% said homelessness was “primarily” a result of “individual actions and decisions.”

In response to another question, 90% said they agreed that mental illness and substance abuse are among the underlying causes of homelessness and that government should expand treatment facilities to help. Just 6% disagreed with that view.

That link goes to an earlier story the LA Times published pointing out that official counts of the homeless often downplay the prevalence of drug abuse and mental problems, but the Times’ own analysis found it was far more common than believed. I wrote about that report here. What the LA Times found matches with what homeless activists in other cities on the west coast often claim, i.e. that only a third of the homeless have drug or mental problems. In fact, the actual numbers may be closer to two-thirds or higher. The poll also addressed the limits of public empathy:

The poll showed broad agreement that societal problems — especially a lack of affordable housing and mental health resources — play a major role in causing homelessness. But the survey also showed that the public’s empathy has limits.

Some 60% of Los Angeles County voters disagreed with the idea that people should have a right to sleep or live on public property as long as the region lacks enough housing or shelters to house everyone. Forty-one percent said they disagreed “strongly.”

Most residents may not like it but the 9th circuit decision in the Boise case says the homeless can not be removed from a public space like a park or sidewalk unless the city can offer them a bed. Most cities, including LA, don’t have nearly enough shelter space to make it possible for authorities to make that offer, so the homeless are often left to build their camps, even when that creates other serious problems such as the deaths of hundreds of homeless people on the street or thousands of violent assaults involving the homeless each year. The city of LA recently voted to participate in a challenge to that lawsuit.

My own take is that most people responding to this survey have a lot of empathy for the homeless but also don’t think empathy should translate into the right to impact the homes and businesses of other people without consequences.

The video from the LA Times shows some of the actual respondents to the poll answering questions about their experiences with homelessness. It’s noteworthy that this isn’t just an academic question from most of the people you’ll see below. Almost everyone present knows someone who is homeless from their neighborhood, their church, even a family member.