The Nature of Homelessness - Historical Attitudes Towardthe Homeless
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Views of homelessness have changed over time. The condition is recognized by most people in the twenty-first century to be a result of poverty or structural flaws in society. In earlier times the homeless were typically blamed for their own predicament, with their condition assigned to laziness, drunkenness, or crime. That view persists somewhat to this day for those whose drug addiction is seen to contribute to their homelessness. Distinctions, however, have always been made. The English Poor Laws of 1601, for example, distinguished between the "worthy" and "unworthy" poor. The so-called worthy poor—widows, the elderly, the disabled, and children—were not held responsible for poverty and homelessness and sometimes received aid when aid was available. Others, however, were viewed as morally suspect—lazy, criminal, or promiscuous (Linda Gordon, "Welfare and Public Relief," Reader's Companion to U.S. Women's History, New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1998).
English colonists bound for North America in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries brought the English traditions with them. Some thought that the community should intervene to reduce homelessness but still believed that for most people homelessness was the consequence of weakness or flawed character. The colonists established community poorhouses (or workhouses), where the homeless and people unable to care for themselves could reside. Poorhouse residents were put to work doing hard or unpleasant tasks, the hope being that such labor would reform the shiftless, and they would be eager to find other employment that would sustain them.
Poorhouses, however, failed to reduce homelessness, and by the early 1900s, the horrors of large institutions like poorhouses and asylums had become so obvious that reformers pushed for "outdoor" relief programs—aid to people within their homes. By that time the United States was becoming more and more urban and industrial, but factory work paid low wages for long hours. When people lost their homes, they often ended up on the city streets.
Attitudes toward the homeless began to change early in the twentieth century. Social scientists began studying social problems—including homelessness—systematically for the first time. They discovered that most of the homeless either worked or wanted to work, but had problems finding employment that paid enough to cover housing.
Beliefs about homelessness changed further during the Great Depression (1929-41). After the stock market crash of 1929, Americans faced a decade of hard times worse than any they had known before. Millions of people lost their jobs, many lost their homes, and most of those who still had work struggled to make ends meet. A severe drought struck the central United States in the 1930s, destroying the livelihoods of millions of farmers, and they streamed out of the so-called dust bowl of the Great Plains states. Widespread hardship experienced throughout the country produced sympathy for the homeless and led to demands that government come to their aid. President Herbert Hoover, who advocated minimal
federal involvement in solving such problems, came under severe criticism, and most historians agree that his stance was at least in part a cause of his defeat in the 1932 presidential election.
The subsequent administration of President Franklin D. Roosevelt passed a number of laws intended to reduce homelessness and poverty as part of its New Deal program. The Social Security Act of 1935 established programs that channeled funds directly to the elderly and to children of single mothers—two groups that had previously suffered most from poverty and homelessness. The United States Housing Act of 1937 established housing and home loan programs for low-income people.
The New Deal laws marked a turning point in attitudes toward the homeless. More resources were added in the 1960s by further legislation, especially the formation of the Department of Housing and Urban Development in 1965. With new laws and bureaucracies in place, American society acknowledged that people could become poor and homeless because of circumstances beyond their control, and that the government should help such people.
This basic idea has continued to guide federal policy, although the shape and implementation of programs has continuously changed. Other political priorities drew attention away from the plight of the poor and homeless during the 1970s and early 1980s. Funding for many programs was cut or frozen. The late 1980s and early 1990s saw renewed interest in the problem, and new ideas surfaced on how best to help people in need.
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