Many Americans deny firsthand knowledge of homelessness and blame it mainly on tough breaks or bad economic luck, an Associated Press poll has found.

A majority of the respondents, 54 percent, say their knowledge of the homeless is based on news reports or word of mouth. Fewer than half say their knowledge of the homeless is a result of something they have seen or dealt with in person.Only 15 percent know someone who has become homeless in the past year. That measure of Americans' scant firsthand knowledge of the problem holds true for all income groups, and drops to 10 percent in non-metropolitan areas and to 7 percent among Americans over 65.

Yet polls over the years have shown Americans want the government to do more to help the homeless. In January, for example, a CBS News-New York Times poll found 71 percent saying the Bush administration had not shown enough concern.

In the current poll, 58 percent said federal spending on helping the homeless should be increased. That is not a significant change from the 60 percent who provided the same answer in a Media General-Associated Press poll in November 1988.

This time, 75 percent of those who wanted increased spending said they would be willing to pay more taxes for it, compared with 86 percent two years ago.

The overall acceptance rate for a tax increase to help the homeless has dropped from 52 percent to 44 percent, perhaps because of the economic downturn.

The survey of 1,004 adults was conducted Dec. 5-9 by ICR Survey Research Group of Media, Pa., part of AUS Consultant Cos.