BU Initiative on Cities Releases 2021 Menino Survey: Mayors and America’s Homelessness Crisis

America’s Mayors Say They Feel Accountable But Unequipped to Address Homeless Crisis, Citing Lack of Funding and Public Opposition to New Housing as Biggest Barriers

Almost One-Third of Cities Have No Staff Dedicated to Homelessness; Nearly a Quarter Cite Reliance on Police

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, Associate Professor of Political Science, and CISS Affiliate.“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.”

Additional findings from the 2021 Survey – related to closing the racial wealth gap – will be released as a separate report soon.