The report consists of two sections: in the first section we will present an examination of the discourse trends across CA to identify the effects of the COVID-19 outbreak on resident perception of homelessness in their cities. The second section will provide an overview of the public response towards initiatives to support unsheltered individuals during COVID-19.

The analysis shows that overall, residents are satisfied with local programs and initiatives to address homelessness during the current COVID-19 outbreak. 

This conclusion is demonstrated by the fact that in cities that implemented official initiatives during the past two months, discourse volume was high and residents' sentiment regarding homelessness was positive.

To capture the effects of the regulations and programs related to COVID-19 on resident online engagement, we divided the data into two periods of time: January-February and March-April.

For each period, we measured discourse volume and resident sentiment about homelessness. The key takeaways are as follows:

  • Residents’ interest in and assessment of homelessness as an important challenge did not change. (9 cities)

  • Residents’ interest in and assessment of homelessness as a minor challenge did not change. (7 cities)

  • Residents perceive homelessness as a lesser challenge. (3 cities)

  • Residents perceive homelessness as an exceptional challenge and are pleased with the current response. (2 cities)

In cities with substantial interest there were only mild changes in discourse volume (increase/decrease) over time. The mild changes in an already high discourse volume suggest that residents’ interest in and assessment of homelessness as an important challenge did not change following the COVID-19 pandemic.

 In cities with substantially low interest there were also mild changes in discourse volume (increase/decrease) over time. The mild changes in an already low discourse volume suggest that residents’ interest in and assessment of homelessness as a minor challenge did not change following the COVID-19 pandemic.

 Where the discourse volume substantially decreased in the second period compared to the first, the decrease was mainly due to a drop in negative sentiment. These drops in both volume and negative sentiment suggest that residents perceive homelessness as a lesser challenge for the city during the current situation.

Where the discourse volume substantially increased in the second period compared to the first, the increase was mainly due to a rise in positive sentiment. These rises in both volume and positive sentiment suggest that residents perceive homelessness as an exceptional challenge for the city during the current outbreak and are pleased with the current response.

There was only one case in which the (mild) increase in discourse volume was due to negative sentiment, following an initiative that was negatively received. In all other cases, official initiatives – regardless of their nature and scope – received favorable feedback.

Comparing Initiatives to Assist Individuals Experiencing Homelessness during COVID-19

The following section focuses on 10 initiatives Californian local governments are adopting to assist individuals experiencing homelessness, in cities where interest in homelessness remained high over time.  Initiatives analyzed target varying aspects of support - sheltering, food distribution, hygiene, and medical care.

We used Zencity’s machine learning sentiment algorithm to compare the residents’ response to the different initiatives. Here are our key takeaways:

  1. The most successful initiative is both innovative and comprehensive - using drones to reach remote encampments to inform their occupants about services. This operation was combined with setting stations providing information, hygiene products, food, and medical care, including a mental health assessment. Using this method, the city improved its ability to reach individuals experiencing homelessness living in remote encampments. The fact that the city posted a video showing how the drones are used and providing details about the stations contributed to the high positive reach.

  2. Initiatives to station portable showers were highly supported. The small negative sentiment mainly reflects comments expressing sadness over the fact that these showers were not available sooner and year-round.

  3. Initiatives providing food also received very supportive feedback - the one offering both portable showers and food is ranked second, and the one focusing solely on food is ranked third. These initiatives did not receive any negative feedback.

    It can, therefore, be concluded that the most appreciated initiatives are the ones addressing more than one aspect of assistance, providing a wide-scope solution.

  4. Initiatives providing a roof were the most common and received overall support. We found that those providing apartments/hotel rooms elicited higher positive sentiment compared to those providing beds in designated shelters. Nonetheless, shelters operated by the city did not stir any negative sentiment, unlike the former initiatives which elicited some negative comments.

  5. Finally, one initiative to allocate a public space as a shelter was the only initiative that received negative feedback. Analysis of residents’ comments revealed that most residents expressed concerns about possible damage to a beloved landmark while some disagreed with the choice of the location. 

To understand the discourse about homelessness in your city - select the “Homelessness” project in your dashboard here

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