Journalist under fire for calling it ‘crazy’ not to be disgusted by homeless people

Prominent Mother Jones writer Kevin Drum says critics deliberately misreading his response to study on peoples reaction to seeing homelessness

A high-profile Mother Jones writer has suggested that it would be crazy not to have a reflexive disgust of homeless people, stirring the anger of those who say he is perpetuating the worst kinds of stereotypes.

Writing on Friday, Kevin Drum was responding to a study which found that some people with a propensity for feeling disgust might experience it when faced with someone living on the street.

Glenn Greenwald reacted by posting photographs of homeless people who have performed altruistic acts alongside a screen shot from Drums story. The two authors of the study, meanwhile, say Drum glossed over subtleties in their work.

outside in america

He seemed to just be endorsing the worst stereotypes without any nuance or without any humanization of these people, said Scott Clifford, one of the authors and an assistant professor of political science at the University of Houston.

Drum said his critics were guilty of deliberately misreading what I wrote.

The authors of the study which is admittedly eyebrow-raising owing to its lexicon set out to untangle a contradiction. Across the country, cities seek to aid homeless people by providing shelters and millions of dollars in funding, while also passing laws against sitting or lying on sidewalks, or restricting where RVs can park, which serve to exclude them.

They examined survey data and focused on a particular feeling that seemed to play a role in perpetuating this paradox: While most of the public wants to help homeless people, they write, sensitivity to disgust drives many of these same people to support policies that facilitate physical distance from homeless people.

Disgust, they propose, might help explain nimbyism in this casea desire among housed people to prevent camps or housing being built in the vicinity of their own homes. And they argue that the media exacerbates disgust with stories that mention disease and unsanitary conditions.

But they do not say that this kind of reaction of reaction is universal: while some people are prone to feeling disgust in the presence of homelessness, others are less likely to.

In his brief response to a summary that the authors published in the Washington Post, Drum said he found their results unsurprising. About half the homeless suffer from a mental illness and a third abuse either alcohol or drugs, he wrote, before commenting how crazy it would be not to not to be disgusted by a population like that.

He finished by suggesting that it was the work of a decent human being to overcome these reflexive feelings and find empathy.

It certainly is the work of of a good human being not to act fully based on immediate reactions, said Maria Foscarinis, executive director of the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty. She said the study seems to make sense, though she had some reservations. But she did not agree with Drum, calling the post really over the top and not true to what the paper is saying.

Its just a manifestation of the worst kinds of stereotypes. As a subscriber to this publication, Im really disappointed.

Pete White, head of the Los Angeles Community Action Network, said he thought Drums conclusions risked tarring an entire group of people, as if every houseless person is addicted to drugs and had a mental illness.

Both of the studys authors expressed displeasure. He appears to believe that everyone will in all circumstances feel disgust towards homeless people, said Spencer Piston, the other author and an assistant professor of political science at Boston University. Theres a clear irony here, which is that we argue that the connection between disgust and attitudes about the homeless depend in part on media coverage and the extent to which homeless people are portrayed as disgusting.

In an email, Drum said that he did not think his blogpost was unfaithful to the study. He also pushed back at those condemning him. Please note that I didnt say I was disgusted by the homeless, nor that they are inherently disgusting, he said. Only that, given the nature of the demographic, its not surprising that most people find them disgusting.

Clara Jeffery, the editor-in-chief of Mother Jones, said that the anger was fueled by the terms used in the study and not Drums writing itself. But it is one brief post about a study, she added in her email. Mother Jones has an extensive body of work on the homeless, the housing and mental health and opioid crisis fueling it.

Do you have an experience of homelessness to share with the Guardian? Get in touch

More from this publisher HERE