Toward Understanding Homelessness: The 2007 National Symposium on Homelessness Research. Historical and Contextual Influences on the U.S. Response to Contemporary Homelessness. What Does History Tell Us About Addressing Homelessness in America?


Homelessness has been a persistent and enduring feature in American history, which provides invaluable context for considering our current response to its challenges. The resources listed below, and particularly the history provided by Kusmer (2002), facilitate the unsystematic review of homelessness in this country that follows:

  • annotated bibliographies (Van Whitlock et al., 1994),
  • complete histories (Kusmer, 2002),
  • short reportorial histories (Caton, 1990),
  • histories that apply anthropological theory to homeless patterns (Hopper & Baumohl, 1996),
  • homelessness considered from changing legal and legislative perspectives (Peters, 1990, Handler, 1992, and Simon, 1992),
  • history analyzed for advocacy purposes (Bassuk & Franklin, 1992), and
  • homeless history analyzed in specific cities (Hopper, 1990, 1991).

While there have been temporary lulls, from colonial times forward there has been no period of American history free of homelessness. Writers such as Caton and Kusmer suggest there have been at least five waves of homelessness, including contemporary homelessness, that reached levels causing social concern. The periods for these consequential episodes of homelessness and selected similarities and differences across them are summarized in Exhibit 1.

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