Toward Understanding Homelessness: The 2007 National Symposium on Homelessness Research. Historical and Contextual Influences on the U.S. Response to Contemporary Homelessness. Defining the Boundaries of Homelessness Cycles


None of the homelessness history material reviewed supports a conclusion that national episodes of homelessness have a definable beginning or end. Although it is clear that homelessness has existed without interruption in American history, its emergence as a recognized problem occurs over a period of years, not suddenly. The evidence examined further suggests that all prior waves have run their course and petered. All of the service interventions noted in Exhibit 1 operated as exigencies, and except for a decline in shantytown populations associated with the Federal Transient Service (Kusmer, 2002) and the benefits of an economic recovery in the late 1930s (Caton, 1990), the sources are silent on how the episode was resolved. This could be a matter of missing evidence or possibly an omission within the sources examined. The contemporary wave must be acknowledged for its watershed statement that homelessness can be ended  by a date as yet to be determined.

Exhibit 1
Similarities and Differences Across Five Major Episodes of Homelessness in U.S. History
Consequential Homelessness Episode
  Colonial Homelessness (1660s1770s) Pre-Industrial Period (18201850) Post-Civil War Period (18701900) Great Depression (19291940) Contemporary Period (1980Present)
Nature of homelessness
  • Itinerant workers
  • Wandering poor
  • Sturdy beggars
Primarily unemployed working men
  • The vagabond era, with large numbers of men hopping trains and wandering. Tramp and bum were the standard labels, derived from terms applied to provisions foraging by Civil War troops.
  • Some freed slaves, single and family
  • Working class especially represented, with homelessness reaching into middle classes
  • Clear emergence of African Americans, women, families
  • Prevalence rates of 15 percent cited
  • Homelessness persisted following Great Depression but associated almost exclusively with alcohol abuse among single men located in marginalized neighborhoods
  • Single people, with high incidence of behavioral disabilities
  • Families with children
Causal factors suggested
  • Agricultural society required skilled and unskilled worker mobility
  • Continuing territorial skirmishes
  • Beginnings of business cycles
  • Immigration
  • Bumpy business cycles
  • Mills, mines, and dock work complement agriculture, but with less employment security
  • Railroads and telegraph introduce pervasive societal changes
  • Two severe economic downturns; employment near 40 percent
  • Immigration
  • Large number of Civil War veterans
  • Railroad penetration allowed for a subculture of train hoppers
  • Severe economic instability
  • Immigration
  • Migration
  • Poor economic performance during 1970searly 1980s
  • Shift to service economy
  • Deinstitutionalization
  • Housing access and affordability
  • Changes in programs to assist poor/uninsured
  • Service access and adequacy 
Service responses
  • Vagrancy laws
  • Community warning out procedures
  • Work programs
  • Corporal punishment
  • Charity-run almshouses and wayfarer lodges
  • Publicly run lodging houses
  • Obligation to return work for service
  • Little differentiation of homelessness responses from assistance to the poor and down on their luck
  • Jails commonly provide overnight accommodation
  • Toughened vagrancy laws
  • Imprisonment
  • Skid rows, flophouses, and cage hotels are the modal response
  • Rhode Island Tramps Act of 1880 emulated by nearly every state; designed to arrest/convict homeless people
  • Municipal and charity-run shelters; bare bones lodging and modest rations
  • Shelters and services by Christian evangelical groups
  • Except for criminal justice interventions, little differentiation of homelessness responses from assistance to low-income people
  • A quarter of cities surveyed in 1933 offered nothing to homeless persons
  • Breadlines, soup kitchens, shelters, and shantytowns
  • First federal assistance for homeless persons, federal Transient Service, focused on unemployed homeless; existed for 3 years, established transient relief programs providing housing, food, job training, and education in 47 of the 48 states
  • New Deal programs were to assist people who were homeless as well as other poor and needy people
  • Initial ad hoc responses by cities, charities to address immediate shelter and food needs
  • Early federal intervention as service demonstrations and analysis of population
  • 1997 survey documents 40,000 homeless-serving programs in 21,000 locations
  • McKinney legislation and amendments establish and fund housing and service programs specific to homeless people
Other observations
  • Tradition derived from English law that the community/parish was responsible for its poor people
  • Residential segregation by class; working class increasingly concentrated near employment
  • Short-term residential approaches developed suited to rapid turnover of working class
  • First emergence of editorial and other writing that impugns homeless people
  • Strong negative opinions about homeless populations softened later in the period as economic causes are better recognized
  • Inchoate professionalization of social work set stage for analytic examination of homeless and first formal research studies in early 1900s
  • Documentation that alcohol abuse among homeless population is recognized as a problem
  • First advocacy group for homeless persons, National Committee on Care of Transient and Homeless, established in 1932
  • Federal government promotes zoning by communities. Multi-family residential development more difficult and real estate on which much of the affordable multi-family housing is located becomes attractive for commercial uses.
  • Strong advocacy group involvement as leadership, policy analysis, oversight
  • Increased private foundation interest over time
  • Challenge to end homelessness articulated in early 2000s substantially influenced by knowledge development and research
a Based substantially on Kusmer (2002) and Caton (1990)

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