Wednesday, February 16, 2022

Homelessness in U.S. History

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 Outreminds 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.

The stigma of having no home in that era, 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. This was true in prior wars.  A number of Civil War veterans also became homeless. Many were accustomed to traveling, living on the road as soldiers, and once the war ended in 1865 continued doing that either for economic reasons, afflicted by the war, or because they had nothing to go back to.

Fortunately politcal will has galvanized in the past 2 decades. Members of the political right and left in Congress deserve credit for coming together to support initaitives to support homeless veterans. Besides the political will to support veterans, research has proved some policy tools extremely effective (e.g., HUD-VASH vouchers). The result has been a steady and impressive decline among veterans experiencing homelessness. 

Why is an 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 the case. Other forces are at play. In the early 1980s when Ronald Regan took office, the economy was poor  and homelessness was becoming visible in ways that were new, including an upsurge of homeless families. When the economy recovered and soared for many in that decade, rates of homelessness continued to rise. It rose through the Bill Clinton 1990s, during the explosion, and it rose through the economic downturns of 9/11 and the Great Recession of 2008–2009 during George W. Bush’s presidency. Some populations saw rises in homelessness during the Obama and Trump eras, while some (like veterans) continued to decline. The latest federal data indicates rates of homelessness are increasing slightly due to COVID.

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. And through our work we need to always 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, in 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 and offering welcome, and, implied, a home.

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

A version of this article by the author first appeared in the
Valley Advocate.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

#WithTheseHands Photo Campaign

Have you heard of the #WithTheseHands campaign?
It is part of Give US Your Poor’s initiative to raise awareness of the homeless veterans and their families living around the nation. With These Hands is a photo campaign inspired by the final verse of the Bruce Springsteen song, “My City of Ruins.” It is designed to engage us all to be part of the solution to ending veteran homelessness, whether you are a veteran or civilian, homeless or housed.
The #WithTheseHands campaign already includes musicians such as Jon Bon Jovi, Mario Frangoulis, and Steve Earle – not to mention all the amazing average Joe’s and Jane’s who have also submitted their photos!  It is constantly growing!
Based on the 2014 Homeless Census there are 49,933 homeless veterans nationwide. The good news is that the nature and scope of the problem makes this solvable. Veteran homelessness is down by 33% since 2010. Cities around the country have started to report that they have ended chronic veteran homelessness, look to New Orleans as a perfect example.
Efforts have even been made at the federal level. President Obama declared a plan to end veteran homelessness by the end of 2015. First Lady Michelle Obama has partnered with the U.S. Housing and Urban Development Department on the Mayors Challenge to End Veteran Homelessness. This is a call to action for mayors to make a commitment to ending veteran homelessness in their cities in 2015. Progress is being made.
If you want to show your support for the fight to end veteran homelessness you can participate in the #WithTheseHands campaign. All you have to do is tweet or post to Facebook a photo of yourself showing your hands with the hashtag #WithTheseHands to @GiveUSYourPoor. There is no right or wrong way to hold your hands – be creative!
Show your support to ending veteran homelessness in four easy steps:
  • Snap it
  • Tag it with #WithTheseHands
  • Post it to @GiveUSYourPoor
  • Share it with friends

Together we can end veteran homelessness!

Monday, March 2, 2015

Homeless Census 2015 - Boston

The Give US Your Poor team had the honor of volunteering at the 35th Annual Point-In-Time Count in Boston on February 25th, 2015. This homeless census occurs each year as part of the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s (HUD) requirement for communities to conduct counts of sheltered and unsheltered homeless individuals.

In Boston over 300 volunteers gathered at City Hall at 8:30pm to form into groups and zones. Mayor Walsh spoke to the energized crowd as everyone zipped up their jackets and prepared for the cold. It was such a moving experience to stand there with so many other volunteers all interested in helping the homeless residents of Boston. Our group of 8 was included graduate students, finance big-wigs, and a MBTA (Boston public transportation) transit police officer. It was such a diverse group of people all there for one purpose. Around 9pm we headed underground to canvas our assigned area, the Green and Blue subway stations. At each stop we would get off the subway and walk around the station checking in each elevator, corner, and hallway for individuals that did not have a place to go that night. By the end of the night we found 15 people who had set up camp for the night. We engaged with each one asking for as much information as they felt comfortable providing off the HUD questionnaire. We also asked if they would be interested in transportation to a shelter or hospital depending on their needs. We had a couple takers and others that were content with staying put. Due to the overwhelming winter Boston has had, the MBTA has been particularly understanding by allowing people to stay warm and dry in the stations. Our night ended around 1am. And as the Mayor pointed out before, we were all especially grateful to go home.

If I could describe the night in one word it would be unforgettable. It was a moving experience to engage in conversation with a person that everyone else was blindly walking past. To hear someone’s story really changes your perspective. I urge everyone to sign up to volunteer next year.

The picture includes part of our group and Give US Your Poor's executive director John McGah getting up to speed. 


Monday, December 15, 2014

Give US Your Poor's newest member: Andrea Locke

I write today as the newest member of the dedicated Give US Your Poor team.  My name is Andrea Locke and I am joining as an AmeriCorps VISTA mem
ber. Before I started last month I had the opportunity to travel to Atlanta, GA for AmeriCorps orientation. On my way to Atlanta it felt so appropriate that as I flipped through the Delta Sky Magazine that I would come upon an article with the opening sentence: “In 2013, Pew Research Center ranked 10 occupational groups by perceived value to society. Not surprisingly, the military topped the list, with 78 percent of U.S. adults saying that America’s armed forces contribute ‘a lot’ to the country’s well-being.”

This is great news, but as Chris Clayton’s article titled “Opening Doors” continues, it highlights the disconnect between what he calls ‘our cheerleading and the reality facing many military members and veterans.’ Clayton chose to focus his article on the problems and solutions for veterans transitioning back to civilian life by way of employment. Raising our attention to staggering figures such as the 722,000 unemployed veterans in the U.S. in 2013, the 9% unemployment rate among veterans having served from September 2001 to today, and the 250,000 service members that enter civilian life each year.

I acknowledged the severity of these figures as I flew South over New York and the Appalachian Mountains.  However, it also made me think ahead to my upcoming start at Give US Your Poor and another subset of veterans returning home. Those coming home to their country, yes, but not home to a roof over their heads. In 2013 there were 50,000 homeless veterans on any given night, and 29 of every 10,000 veterans are homeless. All hope is not lost, in 2009 the Obama Administration committed to ending veteran homelessness in the U.S. by the end of 2015. And since 2010 the number of homeless veterans has gone down by 33%. I am looking forward to my new role at Give US Your Poor and dedicating myself to ending veteran homelessness once and for all; by putting every soldier (society’s number one valued occupation) coming home to the U.S. into a home of brick and mortar. 

The orientation was a great success and truly instilled a sense of pride in all of us as VISTAs, as Volunteers In Service To America, with the overarching goal of eradicating poverty. I have also learned valuable tools and connections to hit the ground running now that I am back in Boston.
Prior to dedicating myself to Give US Your Poor I grew up in Upstate New York on Seneca Lake. I continued on to study history & political science at Warren Wilson College in Asheville, NC. Most recently, I graduated with a Master’s of Science in European Affairs from Lund University in southern Sweden. More personally, I love being outdoors, hiking, and exploring, whether that be internationally or around the block. Having just moved to Boston I have a lot of exploring to do on the weekends!

I am looking forward to making meaningful connections with all of you in the coming months. Feel free to contact me anytime.

Andrea Locke

Friday, September 5, 2014

Excerpt: Thank You For Your Service

This excerpt from Thank You for Your Service by David Finkel first appeared and was taken from

You could see it in his nervous eyes. You could see it in his shaking hands. You could see it in the three prescription bottles in his room: one to steady his galloping heart rate, one to reduce his anxiety, one to minimize his nightmares. You could see it in the screensaver on his laptop — a nuclear fireball and the words FUCK IRAQ — and in the private journal he had been keeping since he arrived.

His first entry, on February 22:

Not much going on today. I turned my laundry in, and we're getting our TAT boxes. We got mortared last night at 2:30 a.m., none close. We're at FOB Rustamiyah, Iraq. It's pretty nice, got a good chow hall and facilities. Still got a bunch of dumb shit to do though. Well, that's about it for today.

His last entry, on October 18:

I've lost all hope. I feel the end is near for me, very, very near. Darkness is all I see anymore.

So he was finished. Down to his final hours, he was packed, weaponless, under escort, and waiting for the helicopter that would take him away to a wife who had just told him on the phone: "I'm scared of what you might do."

"You know I'd never hurt you," he'd said, and he'd hung up, wandered around the FOB, gotten a haircut, and come back to his room, where he now said, "But what if she's right? What if I snap someday?"

It was a thought that made him feel sick. Just as every thought now made him feel sick. "You spend a thousand days, it gets to the point where it's Groundhog Day. Every day is over and over. The heat. The smell. The language. There's nothing sweet about it. It's all sour," he said. He remembered the initial invasion, when it wasn't that way. "I mean it was a front seat to the greatest movie I've ever seen in my life." He remembered the firefights of his second deployment. "I loved it. Anytime I get shot at in a firefight, it's the sexiest feeling there is." He remembered how this deployment began to feel bad early on. "I'd get in the Humvee and be driving down the road and I would feel my heart pulsing up in my throat." That was the start of it, he said, and then Emory happened, and then Crow happened, and then he was in a succession of explosions, and then a bullet was skimming across his thighs, and then Doster happened, and then he was waking up thinking, "Holy shit, I'm still here, it's misery, it's hell," which became, "Are they going to kill me today?" which became, "I'll take care of it myself," which became, "Why do that? I'll go out killing as many of them as I can, until they kill me.

"I didn't give a fuck," he said. "I wanted it to happen. Bottom line — I wanted it over as soon as possible, whether they did it or I did it."

The amazing thing was that no one knew. Here was all this stuff going on, pounding heart, panicked breathing, sweating palms, electric eyes, and no one regarded him as anything but the great soldier he'd always been, the one who never complained, who hoisted bleeding soldiers onto his back, who'd suddenly begun insisting on being in the right front seat of the lead Humvee on every mission, not because he wanted to be dead but because that's what selfless leaders would do.

He was the great soldier who one day walked to the aid station and went through the door marked COMBAT STRESS and asked for help and now was on his way home.

Now he was remembering what the psychologist had told him: "With your stature, maybe you've opened the door for a lot of guys to come in."

"That made me feel really good," he said. And yet he had felt so awful the previous day when he told one of his team leaders to round up everyone in his squad.

"What'd we do now?"

"You didn't do anything," he said. "Just get them together."

They came into his room, and he shut the door and told them he was leaving the following day. He said the hard part: that it was a mental health evacuation. He said to them, "I don't even know what I'm going through. I know that I don't feel right."

"Well, how long?" one of his soldiers said, breaking the silence.

"I don't know," he said. "There's a possibility I won't be coming back."

They had rallied around him then, shaking his hand, grabbing his arm, patting his back, and saying whatever nineteen- and twenty-year-olds could think of to say.

"Take care of yourself," one of them said.

"Drink a beer for me," another said.

He had never felt so guilt-ridden in his life.

Early this morning, they had driven away on a mission, leaving him behind, and after they'd disappeared, he had no idea what to do. He stood there for a while alone. Eventually he walked back to his room. He turned up his air conditioner to high. When he got cold enough to shiver, he put on warmer clothes and stayed under the vents. He packed his medication. He stacked some packages of beef jerky and mac 'n' cheese and smoked oysters, which he wouldn't be able to take with him, for the soldiers he was leaving behind and wrote a note that said "Enjoy."

Finally it was time to go to the helicopter, and he began walking down the hall. Word had spread through the entire company by now, and when one of the soldiers saw him, he came over. "Well, I'll walk you as far as the shitters, because I have to go to the bathroom," the soldier said, and as last words, those would have to do, because those were the last words he heard from any of the soldiers in his battalion as his deployment came to an end.

His stomach hurt as he made his way across the FOB. He felt himself becoming nauseated. At the landing area, other soldiers from other battalions were lined up, and when the helicop ter landed, everyone was allowed to board except him. He didn't understand.

"Next one's yours," he was told, and when it came in a few minutes later, he realized why he'd had to wait. It had a big red cross on the side. It was the helicop ter for the injured and the dead.

That was him, Adam Schumann.

He was injured. He was dead. He was done.

Excerpted from THANK YOU FOR YOUR SERVICE by David Finkel, published in October 2013 by Sarah Crichton Books, an imprint of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. Copyright 2013 by David Finkel. All rights reserved. 

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

"On Homelessness" by Frank Calisi

This is my third time being homeless. I do not like being in a shelter. It is a daily struggle. I must follow the rules and yet my fellow vets make me feel conflicted about what is right. It isn’t always easy to follow what your instincts tell you is the right path. I currently reside in the NECHV. It’s a dry shelter on paper, although many here do still drink. It’s a shell game as to who gets caught – who is more drunk than the next. I’ve only drank a few times. It is nerve wracking. I do not enjoy it – at least not here. I also go to AA meetings. To drink is like going against the grain of what I know is right, what is expected of me and what I feel like doing. I know deep inside that it is therapeutic to have these constraints. This place is a microcosm of the real world except that we are all veterans. At times, it’s like walking on eggshells around here. Don’t rock the boat. That’s my inner self talking to me. Do your KPS, deck duty, make all medical and social appointments. There’s a sub drug culture here, too. Another one of my downfalls – just the thought of being thrown out scares me into being on the straight and narrow.

I have been here five months. It’s time to move on. Yes, I have applied to various apartments. I have been rejected by three because of my past record. Today I looked at a market rate one in Lynn – kinda small, 50’s style, old, but solid. They accepted my application but I want to still look. Don’t want to jump into anything. It’s scary and hard to transition from one institution to being all free. These walls play tricks on my mind. I guess you could safely say that I am institutionalized. I’ve been doing the routine. I have become dependent in many ways on this institution. Transitioning to an apartment is scary.

I have been accepted to the bridges program. It does just that – gives you a way back onto the mainland of society. I get an outside caseworker who will visit me for 9 months, who will help make sure I fit into the community I will live in. Mental health, sobriety and physical well-being are my goals. I will follow-through. This English class keeps my mind in check. I am grateful for it. It allows me to pass the time constructively. Yes, you can say it’s therapeutic. Just writing this paper right now is therapeutic. It gives me room to write honestly and perhaps to see the virtue in life. “It’s a journey,” I heard one of the other students say. I feel like my journey stretches out in front of me into thousands of miles  -  I feel like I have covered maybe a few hundred so far. I must keep one foot in front of the other, walk the straight and narrow line of this life.

Frank Calisi is a U.S. veteran and a resident at the New England Center for Homeless Veterans, where he is a member of the Glass House Shelter Project, a writing partnership with the University of Massachusetts Boston.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Housing is Healthcare

Nowhere to Pee

Did you ever have a moment when something you already understood intellectually suddenly lands on an almost cellular level?

Last Thursday, a conversation at work did that, for me. "Robert" who endured chronic homelessness for nearly three years, was recently successfully referred into a permanent supportive housing program. He had come by our agency, Bethesda Cares, to chat, to report on his tremendous and rapid personal progress.

"I am so glad. I peed for, like, 45 minutes yesterday," he said, "because I finally could."

I thought he meant he was grateful for the "luxury" of ready-access to the toilet in his new apartment.

That "luxury" wasn't it, though. Robert was talking about the actual reason having a toilet matters: his health.

Robert has congestive heart failure, a condition that means his heart is not pumping adequately to keep his kidneys effectively processing waste. Thus, his body builds up fluids, swelling his ankles and legs. A free clinic had supplied him with diuretics, crucial for alleviating his symptoms. Yet Robert could not use his life-saving medication.

Think about it, Reader.

Diuretics, while you are living on the street. No option to just run to the bathroom when you feel the need.

Now housed, Robert has a bathroom with a medicine cabinet, and can finally properly store and take his meds.

Housing Is, In Fact, Healthcare

We all share same three-legged stool of basic needs we must meet for human survival: food, shelter, clothing. Take one leg away, and the stool tumbles. For the purposes of this post, let's look at existence without "shelter."

"Housing is healthcare" is a mantra around Bethesda Cares. Our work centers on housing as the stabilizing factor for recovery, health, and ultimately, survival. It's a model broadly known as "Housing First."

The people we serve, living unsheltered and homeless, are society's most medically vulnerable. They are routinely exposed to the hottest nights, the coldest days, blizzards, downpours, the occasional derecho. They suffer frostbite; multiple conditions from sleep deprivation; their cuts and scrapes are prone to infection; they are at risk of dehydration year-round. And yes, some of them "self-medicate" by drinking themselves into unconsciousness

All that is, of course, in addition to the ordinary illnesses and conditions we each encounter as we age.

How is the homeless woman with diabetes supposed to refrigerate her insulin? The man with high cholesterol, but no kitchen, to cook himself low-fat meals? People coping with both the frenetic uncertainty of life on the street, and with constant exposure to the natural elements are at abnormally -- and avoidably -- high risk of physical suffering, and premature death from treatable causes.

It's a disgrace.

You Don't Need to Be an Economist to Do the Math

If the humanitarian aspects of housing don't move you, consider the economics of "housing as healthcare." They are stark.

Where do people experiencing homelessness go for emergency care? To the nearest hospital ER, of course, maybe ferried there by a local rescue squad who intervened. In fact, people experiencing long-term homelessness are among the highest consumers of costly emergency medical interventions. A hospital must, by law, "stabilize" a person suffering an emergency even if the person cannot pay. The hospital then absorbs that expense.

(I'm just spitballin' here, but you think maybe hospitals pass on those costs on to other consumers, like, say, your insurance company?)

So after perhaps an overnight stay, and tens of thousands of dollars of services later, the patient is released... back onto the streets. Maybe the condition that sent him to the ER is permanently alleviated. Probably not. Regardless, returning to sleeping on a park bench will not speed anyone's recovery.

Even in pricey Montgomery County, Maryland, the cost of housing a person experiencing long-term homelessness is thousands of dollars less, per annum, than allowing that person to remain homeless.
Any third-grade readers out there get that mathematical calculation?


Any adults?

One Other Wrinkle

Emergency service costs are incurred only if someone seeks treatment; for people living unsheltered, that is not always the case. Why wouldn't someone want to go to a free clinic or check in to a hospital, if need be?

You ever see someone you think is experiencing homelessness, because he carts around a lot of "stuff"? That's everything he owns. Those bags and shopping carts might look like they are filled with detritus, but they are items of no lesser a personal value than are our own photo albums, laptops and favorite coffee mugs.

When you and I leave our places of residence, we lock the doors and expect our belongings to be there on our return. A person living at a bus stop, however -- I refuse to call a bus stop a "home" -- knows that his stuff may have vanished by the time he returns from the ER, either into a dumpster, or scavenged by someone else in need.

Seeking treatment is not a slam-dunk of a choice.

In the End

The reasons that people experiencing homelessness are tremendously medically vulnerable are both physical and psychological, the factors quite complex.

But there is that solution to the equation: Housing as healthcare. I have long understood that. Now I get it, too.

Amy Freeman wrote this article.  She is a staffer at Bethesda Cares, the organization leading the 100,000 Homes Campaign in Bethesda, MD.  100,000 Homes Campaign is a partner of Give US Your Poor in the American Music Project: Voices for Veterans. Amy recently reflected on an experience that drove home the importance of housing in personal terms. (This piece was originally published at and again on the 100,000 Homes website. You can view the original story here.)