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Understanding Homelessness: From Memoir to Pathways Home (May 2014): The History of Homelessness

By Irene Glasser and Eric Hirsch

The History of Homelessness

Throughout American history, one finds periods when homelessness has been a serious problem.  Kenneth Kusmer’s Down and Out, on the Road traces the history of homelessness back to the seventeenth century.  He documents how homelessness increased in response to wars and economic downturns.  Kusmer focuses particular attention on “tramping,” which became a common response to homelessness resulting from job losses in the depressions of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries—particularly in the 1870s, 1890s, and 1930s.  He describes how the attitude of English Puritans toward the homeless was that they were responsible for their situation if they were able-bodied.  Vagrancy and its corollary homelessness were considered crimes to be punished.  This is an attitude that persists to this day, preventing effective solutions to homelessness from gaining public support.

Todd Depastino covers some of the same ground in Citizen Hobo: How a Century of Homelessness Shaped America.  Beginning in the post-Civil War years, the author focuses on the history of the hobo and the culture of homeless tramps, which he calls hobohemia.  He argues that hobos had a tremendous impact on larger cultural changes involving race, class, and gender, changes that resulted in the creation of the more universal, federally funded systems of financial assistance, such as Social Security, instead of relying only on private charity.

In her riveting Homeless: Poverty and Place in Urban America, Ella Howard focuses on New York City’s Bowery, tracing its history from the early twentieth century to the present.  Howard brings to life the homeless men (and some women) who sought refuge in the Bowery and the shifting social policies toward the homeless living there and in similar skid rows throughout the country.  She traces the many policy battles regarding what to do with the Bowery, including plans to raze it completely in the hope the homeless would disappear, as if the place itself inspired homelessness.  Particularly appealing in this book are the pictures—from the iconic and haunting photos of Bowery transient hotels, missions, and inexpensive restaurants to photos of 1970s music group the Ramones, who lived and worked in the Bowery as the area was leaving behind its skid row legacy and gentrification took over.

Works Cited