A Brief History of Homelessness in the USA

Craig Denuyl
The Paw Print


While homelessness has always existed, its dynamics have changed drastically in recent decades. Prior to the 1980s, the sight of people living in cars, on the streets, or out in the woods was a distant memory of the Great Depression.

With the advent of the Second World War, virtually all of the homeless (primarily men in that era) were absorbed into the army or the burgeoning war industry.

After the war, employment rates remained high and America boasted a housing market and system of public supports that allowed all but a handful of people to avoid homelessness. In most cities, there was much more affordable rental housing, including very inexpensive single room occupancy housing.

Before the 60’s, people with chronic mental illnesses were often committed involuntarily to psychiatric units of hospitals. Institutionalization in hospitals was not the proper solution to mental illness; however, de-institutionalization without other supportive services along with changes in housing markets led to a large rise in homelessness among the mentally ill and other populations.

The past several decades were marked by a large change in the availability of affordable housing. Most single-room occupancy housing was lost as part of urban renewal strategies. Much of the affordable rental housing was converted to higher priced housing, cooperatives, and condominiums.

Hospitals for people with mental illness were closed down in favor of a system of community-based housing and care. These changes had many positive effects. Downtowns were revitalized, and for people with serious mental illnesses, community-based housing and care was a superior alternative to institutionalization.

At the same time, other forces were reshaping the landscape for low-income Americans. Jobs requiring low-skilled labor were lost. New and powerful illegal drugs came onto the scene. Public resources to assist low-income people did not keep pace with their growing needs.

The result was a rise in homelessness Nationwide, there are now millions more low-income households that need housing than there are affordable housing units.  Right now the waiting list for low-income housing in Alamosa is over 12 months.

Most tragic is the following: in the 1950’s reports showed that the majority of the homeless were still able to find shelter in emergency homes and missions. In contrast, a recent study showed that virtually every city surveyed officially estimated that the number of homeless individuals in that city greatly exceeded the number of spaces that city had in emergency shelters.

On multiple occasions during the harvest season this year the La Puente Home Homeless shelter reached its capacity and had to stop accepting new guests for the first time since its expansion in 2005.

In short, homelessness is on the rise and basic services such as shelters do not have enough room to handle the growing problem.

Many people view homelessness as a fringe issue, affecting only certain kinds of people on the edges of society. This view does not reflect the changing demographics of homelessness in the United States, including a steady rise in homelessness among families with children. Consider the following questions:

Could you ever experience a flood, fire, tornado, or other natural disaster?

Do you work in an area of the economy where your job might become obsolete?

Could you ever suffer from a long-term illness or accident without proper health benefits or other compensations?

Do you live in a household with only one full-time wage earner?

Are you behind on any monthly bills?

Are housing costs in your area increasing faster than wages?

Does anyone in your family struggle with addiction or mental illness?

Could you ever face extreme financial difficulty without family or close friends available to come to your aid?

If you answered ‘yes’ to any of these questions, you are not immune to homelessness.

These questions are not meant to create alarm, but rather to spread awareness that people experiencing homelessness are people just like us. They desire financial stability and a secure home, but have confronted difficult circumstances without sufficient resources to overcome the situation and remain housed.  That is the reality of homelessness today.

If you would like to volunteer for a local homeless prevention and service organization or to learn more about the issues in your community, please call La Puente at 719-587-3499.

blogs.adams.edu is powered by WordPress µ | Spam prevention powered by Akismet