Almost One-Third of Cities Have No Staff Dedicated to Homelessness; Nearly a Quarter Cite Reliance on Police
A Minority of Mayors Define Policy “Success” as Reducing Overall Rates of Homelessness
Findings from the Boston University Initiative on Cities’ Menino Survey of Mayors
While a strong majority of America’s mayors feel that voters hold them largely accountable for addressing homelessness, they don’t believe they have a lot of control over addressing the crisis in their cities, according to a survey of 126 mayors across the United States. In fact, aside from a general lack of funding, mayors cite lack of data, limited staffing, and public opposition to new housing and shelters as the biggest hindrances to their ability to address homelessness issues in their cities. These are some of the findings from the latest report from the 2021 Menino Survey of Mayors, the only nationally representative survey of America’s mayors, which is conducted annually by Boston University’s Initiative on Cities.
Almost three-quarters of mayors (73 percent) believe that voters hold them accountable either “a great deal” or “a lot” for addressing homelessness in their communities, while only 19 percent believe they have either “a great deal” or “a lot” of control over addressing the issue. Mayors in the Northeast are particularly pessimistic; just seven percent of them feel they have a lot of control, while 29 percent of their southern counterparts, in contrast, see themselves as having a fair amount of influence over local homelessness.
Though limited funding is by far the biggest barrier cited by mayors, with 79 percent saying it hinders their ability to address homelessness at least some, lack of public support matters too: 63 percent of mayors say public opposition to new housing or homeless shelters keeps them from addressing the issue. Likewise, 78 percent of mayors indicate that homeless people experience at least a moderate amount of discrimination in their communities, more than any other group listed, including Black, Latino, and transgender people.
“Mayors believe that their constituents care deeply about how they address homelessness. Yet, they perceive themselves as having little influence over the broader structural forces that create homelessness,” said Katherine Levine Einstein, Menino Survey Co-Author and Associate Professor of Political Science at Boston University. “Mayors are often forced to weigh the needs of unhoused people against resident and business complaints—all while managing a fragmented (and often underfunded) bureaucracy theoretically designed to manage the crisis.”
A minority of mayors define policy success in terms of reducing homelessness, and a surprising number of mayors (10 percent) do not have clear definitions for success. When asked an open-ended question on how they “define success” in addressing homelessness, only 40 percent of mayors explicitly outline a policy goal of reducing homelessness. Forty-two percent highlight better housing, while 16 percent mention access to better social services. Eleven percent centered the needs of non-homeless residents—defining success in terms of reducing their complaints.
“In our work with more than 90 Built for Zero communities, mayors have played a critical role in helping communities reduce the number of people experiencing homelessness,” said Rosanne Haggerty, president of Community Solutions. “Mayors in communities from Rockford, IL to the Gulf Coast of Mississippi have shown that homelessness can be a rare occurrence when approached with the same discipline that leaders use to contain public health challenges: measurable, community-wide goals, and comprehensive real-time data that allows progress to be tracked and corrective action taken quickly at any point in time.”
Around two-thirds of mayors cite limited human and social services and the lack of coordination between the many government and social service agencies involved as significant obstacles to successfully addressing homelessness in their cities. Improved coordination is a paramount concern given the wide range of actors mayors say are involved in setting homelessness policy, with Continuums of Care, local nonprofits, the police, those experiencing homelessness and public housing authorities cited by at least two-thirds of mayors.
“Homelessness is a complex and multifaceted problem that requires a coordinated and comprehensive response, and much more funding from the state and national level,” said Madison, WI Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway. “While we continue to create and improve shelter options here in Madison, we need supportive services to address the health, mental health, education and employment needs of people experiencing homelessness. We need to help people move into decent and stable housing, while also working toward effective, long-term solutions—including building more permanent, affordable housing options and investing in initiatives that combat underlying inequities in our community. Ultimately, this requires political will at all levels of government.”
Many mayors do not have dedicated staff to address homelessness, while others rely on police departments. Inadequate staffing likely contributes both to coordination challenges and limited local social services. Just over a quarter of mayors say they have no staff exclusively dedicated to serving people experiencing homelessness. Thirty-eight percent have related staff in their social services department, while another 14 percent say their homelessness staff are in their housing department. A striking 22 percent of mayors place their homelessness staff in police departments, underscoring the outsized role police may play in a city’s homeless response.
The Menino Survey of Mayors, named after the late Mayor of Boston Thomas Menino and supported by Citi and The Rockefeller Foundation, is an annual project to understand the most pressing needs and policy priorities of America’s mayors from large and mid-size (over 75,000 residents) cities. In 2021, Community Solutions joined Boston University as an additional partner to field a series of questions related to homelessness. In total, 126 mayors from 39 states were interviewed throughout the summer of 2021, providing a representative sample of mayors and cities nationally.
Other findings related to homelessness from this year’s Menino Survey include:
- Mayors have big plans for American Rescue Plan funds, seeing the direct and flexible support as an opportune moment to pursue meaningful investments for the future of their cities. Nearly four-in-five (78 percent) mayors believe that ARPA resources will allow them to accomplish transformative aims—most notably around homelessness (21 percent), housing (15 percent) and social services/programs (15 percent.)
- Mayors struggle to get the data they need to evaluate homelessness in their communities. While a small number of mayors (3 percent) collect daily data, most rely on less frequent counts: 38 percent have access to annual data on homelessness and another 35 percent collect monthly data. Ten percent of mayors say that they had no access to city-level data (8 percent indicate that their community only had county-level data available.) Several mayors highlighted city-county coordination problems as obstacles to acquiring municipal data.
- The police play an important role in shaping homelessness policy; nearly 80 percent of mayors say that police have at least some influence over their city’s homelessness policy. Police were the third most influential group listed by mayors, just above people at risk of or experiencing homelessness. While majorities of mayors from both political parties describe the police as having at least a little influence, Republicans are substantially more likely to cite police influence: 68 percent of Republican mayors believe that police have a lot of influence over their homelessness policy, compared with 29 percent of Democratic mayors.
Additional findings from the 2021 Survey – related to closing the racial wealth gap – will be released as a separate report next month.
About the Initiative on Cities
The Boston University Initiative on Cities leads research in, on, and with cities in pursuit of sustainable, just, and inclusive urban transformation. We marshal the talents and resources of wide-ranging disciplines across Boston University spanning the social, natural, computational, and health sciences. The Menino Survey is named for the late Mayor Tom Menino, who co-founded the Initiative on Cities in 2014 following 20 years as mayor of Boston. Additional information may be found at www.bu.edu/ioc and at www.surveyofmayors.com.
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About The Rockefeller Foundation
The Rockefeller Foundation is a pioneering philanthropy built on collaborative partnerships at the frontiers of science, technology, and innovation to enable individuals, families, and communities to flourish. We work to promote the well-being of humanity and make opportunity universal. Our focus is on scaling renewable energy for all, stimulating economic mobility, and ensuring equitable access to healthy and nutritious food. For more information, sign up for our newsletter at rockefellerfoundation.org and follow us on Twitter @RockefellerFdn.
About Community Solutions
Community Solutions is a nonprofit committed to creating a lasting end to homelessness that leaves no one behind. It leads Built for Zero, a movement of more than 90 communities in the United States working to measurably and equitably end homelessness. Using a data-driven methodology, these communities have changed how local systems work and the impact they can achieve. To date, 14 communities have reached a milestone known as functional zero, a milestone for ending homelessness for a population. Learn more at www.community.solutions or follow us at @CmtySolutions.