Toward Understanding Homelessness: The 2007 National Symposium on Homelessness Research. Historical and Contextual Influences on the U.S. Response to Contemporary Homelessness. Distinct Responses to Homelessness


Until the 20th century responses, assistance to homeless populations does not appear to be distinct from assistance offered low-income people. During much of that century, citizens began to expect more of the federal government, both in the form of social insurance programs that buffered some of lifes inevitable setbacks (e.g., New Deal and Great Society programs) and smoothed national economic performance (e.g., actions by the Federal Reserve Bank). Much of this expectation seems to have created a growth and differentiation of programs. The distinction of homeless assistance from poverty-focused assistance might be embedded within that pattern. Certainly, the contemporary wave is distinct from prior waves in the scale and longevity of targeted homeless assistance and in the sustained differentiation of housing and service resources for homeless persons.

The primary locus for organizing a response to homelessness remains at the municipal and county level. Historians trace this tradition to the 17th century, when colonies adopted features of English law. Locally organized charity to homeless people engaged both civic and private sector partners for more than 200 years, and according to Kusmers analysis, it is not until the 1930s that anyone speaks overtly to the complexity of multiple partners operating and the desirability of greater coordination. By the late 20th century, coordination again emerged as an even stronger theme. One of the legacies we may leave from addressing the contemporary wave of homelessness might be our progress and methodology for achieving coordination among the multiple service providers.

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