Monday, August 29, 2011

Homelessness in History

We’ve learned a lot about addressing the issue of homelessness with different audiences in the past 10 years. For one thing, the subject itself (whether for donors or public audiences) can be touchy. It’s not a happy subject (over a million homeless children, ever-increasing homeless veterans, overall numbers rising dramatically).  And with increased unemployment, foreclosures, high health care costs and two prolonged wars, many people are peeking over the edge of homelessness that were not before. This has always been the case in poor economic times in the U.S. but more significantly when there has been economic transition.

I've been told there was not really a history of homelessness, that it is a modern phenomenon. But that is simply not true. Historian Ken Kusmer, author of Down And Out, on the Road: The Homeless in American History, reminds us that we have had periods of homelessness in the past besides the Great Depression.  In the 1980s (the start of modern homelessness) we saw the shift from a manufacturing economy to a service/information economy. Kusmer describes a similar shift in the late 1880s when the nation moved from an agricultural economy to a manufacturing one. Both shifts meant upheaval for many workers that were left extremely vulnerable and, in the worst cases, without a home. Many people were left more vulnerable from the shift and when you added illness, injury or strained social networks, the combination became a type of homelessness cocktail.

The stigma of having no home in 1880s--true today as well--is evident in Stephen Crane’s, “An Experiment in Misery,” which first appeared as an article in the New York Press (1894) and was later released as a book (1896).

He was going forth to eat as the wanderer may eat, and sleep as the homeless sleep. By the time he had reached City Hall Park he was so completely plastered with yells of "bum" and "hobo," and with various unholy epithets that small boys had applied to him at intervals, that he was in a state of the most profound dejection.

War veterans have also been overrepresented among homeless people in American history. In the modern era, Vietnam veterans and veterans from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars may return with psychological and physical scars that extend the war beyond the battlefield, can lead to drug addiction and/or isolation from others, and for many, homelessness. A number of Civil War veterans were also homeless. Many became accustomed to traveling, living on the road as soldiers, and once the war ended in 1865 continued living on the road either for economic reasons, afflictions from the war or because they had nothing to go back to.

Why is a historical lens on homelessness important? There is a belief that homelessness is tied to modern times and economic recession. When the economy declines, some people are left homeless. It seems logical enough. But history shows us that this is not always the case.  Other forces are at play.  In the early 1980s when Ronald Regan took office, the economy was horrible and homelessness was becoming visible in ways that was new, including the presence of homeless families. When the economy recovered and soared for many in that decade, rates of homelessness nonetheless continued to rise. It rose through the explosion of the Bill Clinton 1990s and it rose through the economic downturns following 9/11 and the Great Recession of George W. Bush’s presidency.  Latest federal data indicates rates of homelessness are currently holding steady. We’ll see if that is accurate.

Today our challenge is not to get stuck with the same old models, not play the blame game across ideological sides and not to assume a rising tide will lift all boats.  Instead we need to take a holistic, systemic look at homelessness.  We need to collaborate across federal departments more than ever and across sectors while incorporating best practices that are proven effective.  And in our collective work in this area we need to maintain a humanistic—especially historic—perspective.

When we think of ourselves as Americans at our best, we think of the inscription at the base of the Statue of Liberty: Emma Lazarus’s 1883 poem, “The New Colossus” (from which our organization derives its name). It’s a vision of America symbolically reaching out to those in need of comfort, offering welcome and, implied, a home.

Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!

If you are concerned about homelessness in Massachusetts or elsewhere in the U.S. and would like to join our campaign, please visit our website at to (1) sign up for our newsletter, (2) make a donation, (3) engage your company, (4) host a house party, or (4) volunteer in other ways. Thanks!
This piece first appeared in a slightly different version as a blog entry for The Public Humanist in the Valley Advocate. The Public Humanist is the blog for the Massachusetts Foundation for the Humanities.

Photo by Lynn Blodgett, from his book, Amazing Grace: The Face of America's Homeless (Earth Aware Editions, 2007).

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