The History of Homelessness in America 1640s to present

By: Robert Fischer, Plymouth Congregational Church

Frequently references are made that homelessness as we know it today is rooted in severe HUD cuts in the early 1980s. While policy changes did have a large impact exacerbating the problem, homelessness has been documented in America since 1640.

In the 1640s homelessness was seen as a moral deficiency, a character flaw. It was generally believed a good Christian, under God’s grace, would naturally have their needs met. People outside of that grace somehow were deserving of their plight as God rendered justice accordingly and fairly. If one found themselves homeless in the 1600s, a person or family would come upon a town and would have to prove their ‘worth’ to the community’s fathers,. If not, they would be on the not so merry way to the next town or hamlet.

Today, those experiencing homelessness has nothing to do with a person’s intrinsic worth. Homelessness is a complex social issue with many variables. Unfortunately, for those experiencing homelessness, the impact of the values of the 1640s are still pervasive. In America many still hold to this tenet, that one only needs to pick themselves up by their bootstraps and into the pursuit of the American dream and for those who cannot, they deserve to be destitute for they bring no ‘added value’ to society.

Displacement of people has many causes; industrialization, wars and subsequent problems, natural disasters, racial inequities, medical problems, widowhood, and the values of a nation as represented by their policies relating to the disenfranchised (systemic issues).

The Industrial Revolution starting in the 1820s-‘30s people began migrating from the farm to the city in search of jobs. Philadelphia and New York had many people walking the streets causing the country’s first pan-handling ordinances. City jails became de facto shelter systems.

Poor safety regulation caused a lot of physical disability and death. Those disabled and widows, many with dependent children had no means to provide for themselves and nowhere to turn. The 1850s brought the first documented cases of homeless youth, many of whom were kicked out of their homes because their providers could no longer afford to raise them.

The Civil War was the first war where the newly discovered painkiller morphine was used. Now people with amputated limbs could survive. Opiate addiction became rampant with 100s of thousands of war veterans addicted. From the 1870s until the 1890s one could purchase morphine and heroin with syringes from Sears and Roebucks catalogues. Many rural housewives also became addicted in response to the monotony of life in the middle of nowhere. Criminalization of drug addiction soon followed in response to the epidemic. And of course the Civil War brought with it cases of what is now known as PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder). The terms “tramp” “hobo” and “bum” were born out of this era.

Natural Disasters are another factor in the homelessness problem. The Great Chicago Fire, The San Francisco earthquake, the massive flooding of the Mississippi in the 1920s from Ohio through New Orleans displaced over 1.3 million people. The Drought of the 30s in Oklahoma and Texas, Hurricane Katrina, are just a few examples of disasters that affected millions of people’s households.

Systemic issues have developed over time. People living in generational poverty do not have the resources and support to become educated and move out of poverty. Racial divides still occur in the areas of healthcare, education, access to mortgages, access to equal paying jobs among many others. The constant bombardment of racial messages takes root in the social consciousness. This ethos becomes obvious when we study policy choices. Embedded in subconscious, these systemic issues raise boundaries making it very difficult for any one individual to overcome on their own.

Internationally progress has been made on how we look at the problem of homelessness. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, passed at the UN General Assembly in 1948, states that “everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing, and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his own control.” 155 nations have ratified this declaration.

Where do we go from here? A solid examination of our policies and the underlying values must be questioned. As a nation, we need to recognize and believe in dignity of each individual. Then, we need to speak up for what’s right.