If you go up to a random person on the street and ask them “when did homelessness begin?” they are sure to not know the answer. You see, most people are under the impression that homelessness is a new phenomenon, only beginning within the last 30 years. This, however, is a complete façade. Throughout this post, we will explain when homelessness began and how it’s changed over the years into what it is today. And with that we invite you to sit back, relax, and travel through time with us and learn what the history of homelessness really is.
During an interview with Street News Network, known AZCEH presenter Jeff Olivet, has cited that since as early as 1640, homelessness has been documented in America in journals and public records. During this time, wars fought between the Native Americans and the settlers affected people on both sides of the spectrum. With settlers moving inland from the big cities and causing more fighting with the Native Americans, the Native Americans were beginning to become homeless along with settlers. Mr. Olivet has also said that there are many documented cases in Boston, New York, and Philadelphia from 1640-1660’s. You see, between the 1600’s and 1700’s, in order to settle in a new town, you had to pay a visit to the town fathers. When you visited the town fathers, you had to essentially plead your case. Show them that you will be able to farm your land, build your own house, and that you won’t be a burden to the other citizens of that town. If they didn’t believe you, though, you had to pack up and find another place to live.
Now, let’s pause there for a minute. If this sounds as strange to you as it did to me, keep in mind that this is still happening in this country, just in a different way. Immigrants and refugees must still make their case as to why they deserve to live in this country and people still decide if they believe them enough to let others immigrate here. So, who was generally told to keep moving? Catholics, people with disabilities and mental illness, alcoholics, widows, orphans, the elderly; in all reality the list could go on and on. It was essentially people who were perceived to not be able to pull their weight in society and thus birthing this transient class of people, moving from town to town, pleading their case to town fathers and being denied, just trying to find a place to settle down.
From there, what could possibly be the first federal policy that caused massive homelessness, was the displacement of Native Americans. Olivet explains that the Native American tribes were essentially uprooted, moving to Oklahoma, then creating the Trail of Tears. Around that time, the Industrial Revolution started around the 1820’s-1830’s. Chicago was beginning to gain leverage for trade and industry, and people began moving from farms to the big cities, a movement that created a poor urban underclass. People moved into cities hoping they would find jobs but ended up homeless. Again, people who had disabilities, who were physically unable to work, and who wouldn’t get along with others (what we now call borderline personality disorders) were the ones who felt homelessness in its fullest effect. There in turn became a massive increase of people on the streets of Philadelphia and New York, creating the first anti-panhandling ordinances. City jails became shelters in a sense; criminalizing the homeless became a norm, which is what we are still dealing with today.
Fast forwarding to the Civil War, field medicine reached new heights, morphine became in use and people who had to get limbs amputated could now survive such amputations whereas before, a loss of limb would essentially be death sentence. Similar medical advances are happening now, Olivet noted. “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.”
From there, the train system began to take off, making it easier for people to move. There was a big increase in people moving from small towns, to big cities, right back to small towns. People began to move from the South, especially African Americans, to the North. Back then you only had to pay a few cents in order to stay on the sticky, dirty, vomit-covered floor of a tavern.
This is around the time where Chicago became one of the first hubs of academic study about homelessness, and sociology began to come together. People like Alice Solenberger, writer of One Thousand Homeless Men which was one of the first big studies of homelessness and Nels Anderson who wrote The Hobo began to attempt to fight the stigma of homelessness.
1927 began the next big wave of homelessness, which was caused by a massive flood of the Mississippi River, from Ohio and Missouri down to New Orleans which expelled around 1.3 million people, which to put in context was more than double the amount of homeless in Texas, Mississippi and Louisiana before Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Johnny Cash has since written “Five Feet High and Rising,” a song about this flood. This flood in turn created the first massive relief effort by the federal government.
With the Great Depression of 1929 the amount of homeless people sky rocketed to a number we’ve never seen before and possibly haven’t 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,” Olivet notes, “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.”
From the 1940’s-1960’s, poverty decreased with the war. It is important to note, though, that while the amount of homeless people went down, many were still teetering on the edge of extreme poverty and homelessness. Then, from the 1960’s-1970’s we saw the groundwork for the current wave of homelessness: the Vietnam War. People returned home both physically and mentally distressed and mental hospitals were closing down without offering help to those who were now free from those mental hospitals.
When asked if there was a policy to counter this trend, Olivet explains that, “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.” Now, I must pause here for one main reason. Recently, I reached out to a few people who currently work in the homeless sector of nonprofits, one of which is Fred Karnas, a Senior Fellow with The Kresge Foundation and AZCEH presenter. Mr. Karnas, who is approaching his 33rd year of working on homelessness in varying capacities, was the first person I thought of when I read this statement by Mr. Olivet. You see, I asked Mr. Karnas, and many others, one simple question: how has the homeless service sector changed to you throughout your career? During his extensive response, Mr. Karnas continuously referenced the McKinney Act (later renamed the McKinney-Vento Act) of 1987, even once calling it “a game changer in terms of resources”.
Do you want to learn more about Mr. Karnas’ and others’ opinions on how the homeless service sector has changed throughout their career, as well as more on the McKinney-Vento Act? Stay tuned for next week’s blog post which will be the second part of this story!