A History of Homelessness in the United States
Sometimes the more things change, the more they stay the same. Annoying as platitudes may feel, this one is made gospel by the shockingly similar responses modern America and medieval Europe had to spikes in homelessness. While a conviction of vagrancy (or loitering, criminal trespass, panhandling, and public camping in today’s parlance) no longer results in branding, deportation, or the death penalty, increased visibility of homelessness in any era almost always resulted in criminalization, stigmatization, and a generally haphazard or uncoordinated scramble for scarce resources. Grim as that sounds, examining historical policies empowers us to contextualize why we should rethink our own and moves us closer to making mass homelessness history once and for all.
Homelessness comes to America
Barring natural disasters or war, there is no evidence mass homelessness existed in North America prior to European colonization. Indigenous nations owned land and housing in common, a stark contrast to the highly unequal feudal system in Europe in which monarchs owned all the land and enforced a rigid class system. In the Americas, common ownership engendered equitable distribution of housing and resources, creating nearly classless societies. A French Jesuit priest wrote in the 1650s of the Iroquois: “No poorhouses are needed among them, because they are neither mendicants nor paupers… Their kindness, humanity and courtesy not only makes them liberal with what they have, but causes them to possess hardly anything except in common.”
Colonization and genocide spread Europe’s highly unequal, race-based class system to the Americas and established private property rights – characterized by the right to withhold resources from others – as the prevailing housing distribution system, two key institutions underpinning the mass homelessness that exists in the United States today.
Victim blaming and homelessness criminalization through the ages
The 1640s mark the earliest documented instances of unhoused people surviving in America. Colonists blamed the moral deficiencies of the unhoused as the cause of their homelessness, assuming that persons in God’s good graces would not be so unfortunate. While Americans’ worldviews seem significantly changed since then, the tendency to fixate on individual traits to rationalize homelessness endures to this day. Hyperfocus on the individual generally drives municipalities to criminalize poverty and homelessness instead of investing in systems that end extreme poverty, such as increasing affordable housing stock.
The end of slavery illustrates this point very well. Freed slaves were not identified as refugees deserving reparations to end their economic plight, but criminalized as vagrants. Southern states enacted “Black Codes” intended to control public space and suppress Black people. One vagrancy law out of Austin explicitly criminalized “all able-bodied Negroes who have abandoned the service of their employers, for the purpose of idleness, or who are found loitering or rambling about, or idly wandering about the streets or other public thoroughfares.”
An estimated one-fifth of the population experienced homelessness after the worst economic depression to ever hit the nation struck in the 1870s. Roughly one million of the 5.4 million living in the United States “tramped.” According to Robert Bruce’s 1877: Year of Violence, evidence from the time revealed a “close correlation between business slumps and the ‘tramp evil,’ ” but towns and cities still enacted harsher punishments for vagabondage in an effort to discourage vagrancy.
In the wake of COVID’s devastating economic impact and Texas’ statewide camping ban, the parallels between the past and present seem glaring. Five hundred years of criminalizing houselessness never prevented, ended, nor kept it out of our backyards; it is highly unequal systems and policy that bred modern mass homelessness, not individuals doing what is needed to survive.
The road to modern mass homelessness: racial disparities, mass incarceration, and the rise and fall of public housing investment
The Great Depression and natural disasters in the 1930s led to more bouts of mass homelessness, but instead of relying on private charities to address Americans’ economic plight – a common practice for the federal government up until that point – President Franklin Roosevelt responded to the outcry for public investment to rebuild the nation’s economy. The New Deal created programs to build Americans’ wealth and significantly reduce the unhoused population, including the creation of publicly-owned housing, but Black people were explicitly excluded from most of these programs. Richard Rothstein’s The Color of Law lays bare how every level of government in the U.S. barred BIPOC access to public and private housing, prohibited Black populations from accessing public benefits, and actively displaced Black homes and businesses without compensation in the name of urban renewal. These discriminatory practices paved the way for African Americans’ overrepresentation in homeless populations today.
Mass incarceration and over-policing of communities of color also play a large role in modern homelessness and racial disparities. One study by McCormick Institute of Public Affairs found “nearly a quarter of guests in homeless shelters had been incarcerated within the previous year.” Without policies preventing housing provider discrimination against persons with criminal backgrounds and/or policies that decriminalize non-violent victimless crimes (e.g. drug use), the prison to homelessness pipeline will be a constant reality or threat for the 11 million people that cycle through U.S. jails each year.
Drastic public housing funding cuts from the Carter administration onward also significantly increased homelessness by reducing affordable housing stock, as did the nationwide effort to demolish historically affordable, typically transitional housing types (e.g. boarding houses, single-room occupancy units) in the 1950s and ‘60s. When low or no income housing stock does not keep pace with demand, low-income families and individuals are more susceptible to experiencing homelessness and those populations account for the bulk of the episodic homelessness seen today.
While the American Rescue Plan invests $5 billion into the development of affordable housing, tenant-based rental assistance, supportive services, and acquisition and development of non-congregate shelter units to get people off the streets, it cannot be ignored that private landlords must make up for the lack of affordable and/or public housing units. Historically, a significant number of private landlords in Texas do not accept vouchers and the state legally permits this type of prejudice, known as source of income discrimination. An unwillingness to accept folks with criminal backgrounds also poses a substantial barrier to renting privately-owned units. Federal protections against income source discrimination and criminal background discrimination, and/or direct-to-tenant rental assistance payments could increase the number of existing units immediately available to unhoused rental assistance recipients. Increased investment in public housing construction and rehabilitation also has the potential to significantly reduce homelessness over time and begin to atone for the atrocities caused by government-subsidized institutional racism.
While it is uncertain Americans would ever embrace the Indigenous view of common property over private property, the growth of community land trusts, addressing the past and present systems that create unequal housing access can set us on the path to being a land where housing is once again regarded as a human right.