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The History of Homelessness in America, 1640-Present

 StreetWise (USA) 07 July 2010

Throughout history, homelessness has been misunderstood in the US. “There is no such thing as ‘the homeless’. It’s a group of people just like any other —they’re individuals, they’re families, they’re old, they’re young, they’re sick, they’re healthy. People are much more complex than the diagnosis that they have.” (3265 Words) - By Ben Cook


Homeless children on the streets of America. Photo: Jacob A. Riis

An interview with expert on homelessness and social justice, Jeff Olivet.

What do you think the current perception of the homeless is?

There is no such thing as "the homeless." It's a group of people just like any other group of people-they're individuals, they're families, they're old, they're young, they're sick, they're healthy. People are much more complex than the diagnosis that they have. When we think about the history of homelessness in the United States, a lot of times the perception is that homelessness is a new phenomenon, that we essentially created it 30 years ago with cuts to housing or with the institutionalization of the people from backward hospitals or with devastated veterans returning from Vietnam. While all of those issues certainly contributed to the current wave of homelessness that we find ourselves in, we didn't create homelessness in the late 1970s and early 1980s. We've certainly made decisions as a society where we place our funding-toward long wars, toward corporate tax breaks. Those things have a direct impact on homelessness and how many people slip through the cracks.

When were the first reported cases of homelessness in the U.S.?

The first cases of homelessness date back to the 1640s. These are [reported] in journals of the day, in public records-mainly in the northeast, in the bigger cities of the original 13 colonies.

Who was homeless during this time?

Wars fought between the settlers and the Native Americans displaced people on both sides; many of those new settlers became displaced in the big port cities. European settlers were moving further inland, and these skirmishes were making Native Americans homeless and immigrants homeless. In Boston, New York, and Philadelphia you see many cases in the 1640s-'60s.

What types of individuals were homeless?

At this time you had to essentially show up to a town and make your case for why you should be allowed to settle there. Some people are still forced to do that-refugees, asylum seekers-people who must make their case for why they [deserve] to be a part of your community. In most New England towns in the 1600s-1700s you had to go sit before the town fathers-and make no mistake, they were fathers, not mothers, and they were all white-and you basically had to say, "I'm going to be able to pull my own weight. I'm going to be able to farm my land and build my house, and I'm not going to be a drain on everybody else." And if they didn't believe you, they would not allow you to settle there.

So who do you think was told to move on? Catholics, people with physical disabilities, mental disabilities, alcoholics, widows, orphans, the elderly . . . anyone who was perceived to not be strong enough to carry their weight in society. So what we ended up with was a transient class of people experiencing homelessness, moving from town to town, trying to find some place to settle down. It was a new world with new opportunity, but not for everybody.

Was there a guiding national precedent for how to treat immigrants, settlers, and established Native Americans?

One policy decision that we made early on as a nation, perhaps the first federal policy that caused massive homelessness, was the displacement of Native Americans, especially Native American tribes in the southeast. The Native American tribes were essentially uprooted and moved west to Oklahoma. That was the Trail of Tears, and Andrew Jackson got famous for it and became president.

Who else besides Native Americans were facing homelessness by this point in history?

Around the same time the Industrial Revolution was starting in the 1820s-'30s, about the time that Chicago was popping up as a serious contender for trade and industry in this part of the country, people were moving from farms into the cities, a movement that automatically created a poor urban underclass. People moved into the cities with the hopes of finding jobs; many became homeless. Again, people with disabilities, people who are physically unable to work well, people who couldn't get along with other people because of what we today call borderline personality disorders, ended up homeless.

During this time there were reports from Philadelphia and New York of masses of people wandering the streets. This is the first time that we saw anti-panhandling ordinances.

The city jails became the de facto shelter system-sound familiar? We're kind of going down that road again; we've criminalized homelessness and we lock people up. It's a kind of stupid way to deal with homelessness, but that is what has happened in cities all over this country. The criminalization of homelessness is not new.

The Industrial Revolution started a huge economic boom. Didn't it create jobs, help people out of poverty, and bring about positive change?

The Industrial Revolution caused a lot of physical disability as well-people lost lives, people lost limbs, and there [wasn't much of a] social safety net to keep people from becoming homeless. It was in the 1850s that we started seeing the first documented cases of youth homelessness, mostly among adolescent boys who were kicked out of the house because the family didn't have the resources to take care of everybody. There were runaways, there were throwaways, there were homeless youths.

Also in the 1850s you saw a massive recession very much like the one that we're in now, and we know that when the economy tanks, people become homeless . . . they lose jobs, they lose homes, their families can't take care of them because they're no better off, either. So they become homeless.

What effect did the Civil War have on the homeless population?

During the Civil War, field medicine became quite good-they started using morphine, amputated limbs were survivable. That was new-you'd [have been] dead before that.

We're seeing similar medicine advances now with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Things like traumatic brain injury-people are surviving who wouldn't have 10 or 15 years ago, and we're beginning to see them on the streets. More people with physical injuries, more people who are mentally disabled-we saw that in the Civil War too. It's not new for veterans to become homeless.

What did these survivors do after the war?

This is when the terms "tramp" and "bum" were born. The terminology among the soldiers is that [when] they would go out and get food-chickens from farms, fruit from orchards, wood for fire-that was called "going out on a tramp" or "going out on a bum." So when those people took those survival skills that they had honed during that war into everyday life, they became "tramps" and "bums." "Hobo" is another term from those days.

Were the homeless still primarily located in East Coast urban areas after the war?

At this time the train system was taking off in this country. The railroad expands, and all of a sudden you have people moving from small towns to big towns to other small towns; Chicago is clearly a hub of transit. People from small towns in Ohio and from the South, especially African-Americans, were moving north.

The expansion of the train lines had a huge impact on homelessness in this country . . . a massive number of veterans with survival skills and post-traumatic stress disorders went out riding the rails. Often these were single adult men, often with drug and alcohol problems, some with mental illness.

What about urban homelessness?

You paid a couple cents to stay on the sticky, dirty, alcohol-and-vomit-covered floor of a tavern. People often say that family homelessness is new, and we're certainly in a wave of increasing family homelessness, but it's not new-it has been with us throughout our history.

Here's an image (see picture above) of what cheap lodging houses looked like in New York in 1882-people are stacked like sardines. We saw children out living on the street, even during the good times. The country's economy was turning around in the early part of the 20th century; it was called the Progressive Era. People in Chicago were a huge part of this-building skyscrapers, industry all over the place. We were really rocking as a country, but people were still poor. Homeless people were still homeless.

How did Chicago homelessness look compared to other big cities at this time?

Chicago was one of the first hubs of academic studies about homelessness. The field of social work was starting to develop. The movement of sociology was beginning to come together. We had people like Alice Solenberger writing One Thousand Homeless Men, which was one of the first large-scale studies of homelessness. Her job, as she saw it, was to dispel all of the stereotypes and all the myths and say, "Look, here are people who are unique and full of stories. They have hopes and dreams just like anybody else." They are bigger than their issues.

Who else was involved in early Chicago social work?

Nels Anderson was writing about Chicago's skid row in The Hobo. This was in 1923 on Madison Street (see picture on page 13), called "the main stem" by hobos; you could find cheap restaurants, secondhand clothes, and hostels. This area is where a lot of the initial rescue missions popped up in the 1870s. The Salvation Army and a lot of those other first-wave efforts were located there. We know that skid row remained a problem [up through] the 1960s, when the whole movement toward urban renewal started demolishing poor parts of town and displacing a lot of people who were living in cheap housing.

What historical event marked the next big wave of homelessness?

In 1927 there was a massive flood of the Mississippi River, from Ohio and Missouri down through New Orleans.  If you're a fan of Johnny Cash, he wrote a song about this flood called "Five Feet High and Rising." The 1927 Mississippi flood displaced about 1.3 million people.

The amount of homeless people in Texas, Mississippi, and Louisiana is almost double what it was before Hurricane Katrina in 2005. There's a direct correlation between natural disaster and homelessness: you can put the Chicago Fire in that category [1871], the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, the tsunami in Asia in 2004 . . . These directly impact people. For many, things are never the same. If you go to New Orleans now, things are not what they were before Katrina; some people still don't have housing.

How did the country respond to those displaced by the flood?

What we know from the federal response to the 1927 flood is that this was the first massive relief effort coordinated by the federal government. It was overseen by Herbert Hoover. He got famous for that and became president.

We also know that the refugee camps were segregated. You've got to believe that they were separate but not necessarily equal. Black men in particular were forced to work at gunpoint to rebuild the levees throughout Mississippi and Louisiana. We have a period of about a year and a half of forced slavery in this country in 1927-'28. This was our federal response to the Mississippi flood.

Very much like with Hurricane Katrina, people did not go back home a week later, like we might expect. They were in camps and shelters for months-in some cases, years. This flood was a deciding factor-with African-Americans, especially-in driving people north during the 1920s and '30s. So places like Chicago, Detroit, and Cleveland saw a huge increase in African-American population at this point.

So, with the Depression, America was kicked while it was already down?

With the Great Depression of 1929 we see massive numbers of homeless people like we've never seen before, and possibly have never seen since.

Now, one of the upsides of the Depression is that it was the first opportunity for the United States government to jump into action to address homelessness-and they did. From 1933 to '36 the U.S. government instituted the FTS, or the Federal Transient Service, and it was a fantastic federal program that funded shelters and arts programs and health centers and job training and work camps and housing for people who were homeless. And it was remarkably effective.

When you read the journal entries of the people it affected, you see shelters that treated people with dignity, that were well run. They didn't have a lot of the religious requirements that some of the evangelical programs had. They were really good.

If it was such a good program, what happened to it?

In 1936 the program was shut down. The Roosevelt administration wanted to fund Social Security, so it cut a bunch of emergency response programs, much like we're seeing stimulus funds do now. They folded a lot of those resources into Social Security. What the program showed is that the federal government can do something right if they put their minds to it and put enough resources toward a solution.

What effect did World War II have on homelessness?

What we saw through the '40s, '50s, and '60s was the country went to war and back to work, often building things like airplanes and tanks. The country essentially pulled itself out of the Great Depression with a huge economic rebound.

So from the '40s through the '60s poverty decreased?

But not everybody felt that-some people were still very poor, very much on the edge. What we saw then in the '60s and '70s was the groundwork for the current wave of homelessness: the Vietnam War. People were coming back devastated, both physically and mentally.  Plus, we were closing down . . . mental hospitals without offering enough effective community response to catch all of the people who were leaving.

Wasn't there policy in place to counter this trend?

Compounding the current situation was cuts in federal funding to affordable housing in the '80s and '90s. The current homelessness wave is absolutely a result of the fact that we don't do a good job taking care of people with mental and substance-abuse problems.

You can make a direct line between the policies we make at the federal level, state level, local level and increases in homelessness. We know that homelessness always hits minorities, people with disabilities, women, and certainly poor people harder than it does anybody else. We know that the homeless are always thought of as one group, and they never are-there's no such thing as "the homeless," there's no such thing as "What are they like?" We're talking about people with individual hopes, dreams, joys, and pains, and every story is absolutely unique and unlike any other story.

What solutions do you think are practical for fighting the current wave of homelessness?

Ultimately, homelessness in this country is a result of a lack of affordable housing, and a gap between rich and poor people. We know homelessness is like a game of musical chairs, where you have affordable housing units as the chairs. There are many factors that go into homelessness, but if you had enough affordable housing that would be a big part of it.

A pre-recession study projected that we have 10 million extremely low-income renters in this country and 3.5 million units of housing they can afford. That's a gap of 6.5 million units of housing.

What's being done to bridge this gap?

What we've seen over the last 8-10 years is a slight increase in homeless-specific programs and huge cuts to safety-net programs that prevent people from becoming homeless in the first place.

Under the Bush administration we saw an increase in homeless assistance dollars but cuts to Section 8, Housing for the Elderly, housing in rural areas. It's an approach that tries to solve homelessness one person at a time, but if we're cutting Section 8 by $716 million over a decade, that's going to cause homelessness.

Is any of the federal stimulus money going to help?

I'm cautiously optimistic about the stimulus money and homelessness prevention, and also some of the HUD budgets being proposed right now-there's some good stuff in there. We've got a lot of advocacy work to do to get this thing right on local and national levels. We know from our friends at the National Low-Income Housing Coalition that there's not one county in the United States where someone can afford even a one-bedroom apartment on minimum wage. Not in Chicago, not in Alabama, not in Alaska, not in Massachusetts. Nowhere.

We also know from the U.S. Conference of Mayors report that homelessness and hunger are on the increase at a time when city budgets and state budgets are in shambles. There's a new report from the National Center on Family Homelessness that found that 1 in 50 children in the United States experiences homelessness each year.

Are improvements being made to our infrastructure and perceptions, and where?

Where's the hope in all this mix? I think we're getting a lot better on how we coordinate systems, how we do advocacy, and how we fund programs. Not that everything's perfect, but if you look where we are now versus where we were 25 years ago, a whole lot of good pieces are in place.

Now people are talking about homelessness prevention-that's pretty new. Not just talking about moving people off the streets or out of the shelters, but preventing them from becoming homeless in the first place. That's a great thing that we're talking about . . . actually funding programs for prevention.

Housing first, rapid rehousing, and the notion of permanent supportive housing are huge factors in ending homelessness. We're talking about how some people are going to need ongoing support and treatment, access to health care, job training, psychosocial rehab . . . it's permanent a lot of times. Some people want or need a variety of connections to stay housed.

What about improving stereotypes of homelessness?

There's been a shift in language the last few years. We used to talk about managing homelessness or how we address homelessness-now community upon community across this country is talking about ending homelessness. It's a real shift. Some people were talking about this a long time ago, but the nation has caught on-we could end homelessness if we really set our minds to it. Now what we need is for the dollars to follow that language.

Do these shifts in perception give you hope about the future of homelessness? Is there a future of homelessness?

There's a huge set of challenges before us. We're in a daunting economic climate right now in which to work. On the other hand, people have created some pretty fantastic new ways of dealing with and ending homelessness. When you talk about human rights work, I think that one of the most important things that you can do is hold out hope for people. It's like the Olympic torch-a torch that can reach through communities. You take hold of that torch of hope for folks that everyone else has given up hope on; you give hope to folks who have even given up hope on themselves.

I believe we [homelessness prevention advocates] are on the verge of a very different way of working. We estimate that there are as many as 300,000 people doing homelessness service work in this country. It's not a few hundred across Chicago-it's 300,000. That's an army of people changing things on their corners of their communities every day, just like you are. You're part of something much larger than yourself.

Jeff Olivet has been addressing issues of homelessness, poverty, and HIV since the early 1990s-as an outreach worker, case manager, housing director, activist, writer, lecturer, and trainer. He serves as director of training at the Center for Social Innovation in Newton Centre, Massachusetts, and has worked with public hospitals and clinics around the U to improve health-care access for patients who are poor and underserved. He's also been involved with international health work in South Africa, Kenya, and Nigeria. Find out more about the Center for Social Innovation at


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Originally published by Streetwise USA. ©