Many people have told me that there was not really a history of homelessness in the U.S., that this is a modern phenomenon beginning in the 1980s when the issue became so visible at unprecedented levels. But that is simply not true. Historian Ken Kusmer, author of Down And Out, reminds us that we have had periods of homelessness in the past besides the well-known homelessness conditions of the Great Depression. In the 1980s we saw the effects of the shift from a manufacturing economy to a service/information economy (think of the rust belt for example). 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 worst cases, without a home. That left many people more vulnerable, and when combined with illness, injury, or strained social networks, the combination became a type of homelessness cocktail.
A version of this article by the author first appeared in the