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"Please Do Not Feed the Homeless:" The Role of Stereotyping and Media Framing on the Criminalization of Homelessness


Homelessness is a critical social and economic problem in the U.S., with approximately 3.5 million people experiencing homelessness in a given year (National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty [NLCHP], 2004). Over the past 25 years, many U.S. cities have adopted increasingly punitive policies (e.g., sleeping bans, restrictions on sharing food with homeless people) to address rising rates of homelessness and people living in public spaces (National Coalition for the Homeless [NCH], 2006). Media representations of homelessness play an important role in fostering support for anti-homeless ordinances (e.g., Kendall, 2005; Iyengar, 1990).

This study examined media framing of homeless people and policies related to homelessness in five U.S. cities. Los Angeles, Atlanta, and Orlando were selected for analysis based on their ranking as three of the top "ten meanest cities" for homeless people in the report, Homes not Handcuffs: The Criminalization of Homelessness in U.S. Cities (NLCHP & NCH, 2009). Two progressive cities, Portland and Seattle, were chosen as contrasts to these "mean" cities. A content analysis of 402 newspaper articles and 184 editorials and op-eds from key periods surrounding the passage of restrictive homeless ordinances in each city was conducted. The overarching goals of the analysis were twofold: (1) to deconstruct the framing of homelessness in mainstream newspapers; and (2) to offer a social psychological analysis of relationships among stereotypes, attributions for homelessness, and the criminalization of homelessness. Findings indicate that homeless people were frequently described in terms of stigmatized characteristics (e.g., mentally ill) and behaviors (e.g., substance use, crime), while positive characterizations (e.g., hardworking) were rare. Moreover, policy discussions tended to focus on individual behaviors (e.g., panhandling, sleeping outdoors) rather than structural causes of homelessness (e.g., lack of affordable housing). Supporters of anti-homeless ordinances relied on stereotypes of homelessness and framed the issue as crime prevention and addressing public safety and health. Critics maintained that the policies violated civil liberties and emphasized the need for structural-level solutions. Implications for people experiencing homelessness and the consequences of restrictive homeless policies are discussed.

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