Homelessness in the Past

Dorothy Moses Schulz, Peter Higginbotham, Linda M Crannell, Charles Barber, Todd DePastino, John C Schneider. Homelessness Handbook. Editor: David Levinson & Marcy Ross. Berkshire Publishing, 2007.


The concept of vagrancy has existed for centuries, but over time it has been used to describe different groups of people. Whether called hoboes, tramps, bums, skid rowers, the homeless, bag ladies, or urban nomads, the terms vagrancy and vagrants have universally implied that those so labeled are not only wanderers without homes, but are also likely to participate in criminal activity.

Vagrancy became a social issue in England during the fourteenth century CE, when transition to a capitalist economy from a feudal, agrarian one resulted in dislocation, particularly of the poor, as people moved around in search of work or residential stability, and by 1349 it had been criminalized through enactment of “poor laws.”

Vagrancy in the United States

The American colonies enacted similar laws, as did the states after independence from England. These acts were attempts to deal with poverty in a way that offered relief to those deemed deserving who could not work (local residents, primarily disabled men, widows, and children) while denying it to the undeserving who would not work (vagrant strangers). The aid was provided by religious and civic groups rather than by the government, and the notion that it should go only to those who could not work had strong religious overtones. There were also financial considerations. Charitable groups were concerned that vagrants would gravitate to areas where aid was more easily obtained and where the amounts of charity were more generous. Providing relief for the indigent remained primarily the responsibility of private agencies until the 1930s. Only after the creation of social security and public assistance did aid to the aged and the indigent become the responsibility of various levels of government.

In the years immediately after the Civil War and continuing through the serious economic depressions the United States experienced in the 1870s, 1890s, and 1930s, thousands of men (and a few women—the numbers of female vagrants have always been difficult to estimate because many dressed as men for comfort and for physical safety) traveled from place to place, some in search of work, some in search of crime, and some in search of adventure.

Beginning with Civil War veterans who rode the rails without paying their fares, vagrants have been associated with the railroads in the public’s mind. The Civil War veterans were followed by tramps and hoboes (many uprooted by the war even if they were not veterans) who used the newly laid ribbons of rail to travel faster and further from home than ever before. Railroad vagrancy was dangerous; estimates were that almost 24,000 trespassers, most of whom were hoboes, were killed and an equal number injured between 1901 and 1905. Many observers believed that the numbers of hoboes riding the rails during the Great Depression were even larger than after the Civil War. The Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC) reported that between 1929 and 1939 about 27,000 trespassers (most presumed to be vagrants) were killed or injured on railroad property.

The use of tramp acts and loitering laws was not confined to the railroads. Vagrancy laws were used after the Civil War to keep former slaves in a state of quasi slavery. In 1865, for example, Alabama broadened its vagrancy statute to include runaways, stubborn servants or children, and laborers or servants who loitered or refused to comply with any contract for a term of service. Many police departments used tramp acts and loitering laws to control those the public viewed as dangerous or nuisances—who were often members of racial or ethnic minorities.

Vagrancy in the Twentieth Century

Beginning with the so-called “rights revolution” of the 1960s and 1970s, the concept of vagrancy began to be questioned, and laws that outlawed loitering were overturned by the courts. The appeals were usually based on one of two factors; the laws outlawed a status rather than an act, or the laws were too vague for the average person to know what behavior constituted a violation. In 1962 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Robinson v. California that while a state could prohibit the use or possession of drugs, it could not criminalize the status of being a drug addict. Ten years later, in Papachristou v. Jacksonville, the Supreme Court struck down Florida’s vagrancy law as overly broad, arguing that a person of ordinary intelligence would have no idea what conduct was forbidden and that, taken literally, a person out for a leisurely but aimless stroll could be stopped by the police and arrested as a vagrant.

These legal challenges coincided with a major change in the definition of who was a vagrant. Although there had been homeless people sleeping in public places in the two decades following World War II, during those years vagrancy was thought to be primarily a problem of elderly males, often alcoholics, living in cubicle and single room occupancy (SRO) hotels on skid rows in cities around the nation. By the 1970s the face of homelessness had changed, due to a number of issues including urban renewal, gentrification, and rising rents, to include Vietnam-era veterans, many with drug and mental health problems, and, more obviously, women, many elderly and frequently carrying all their possessions in shopping bags. They were soon joined by homeless families, often made up of minority women with young children, who camped out at welfare centers around the nation.

The rise in homelessness received considerable newspaper and television coverage, resulting in a high level of social and political attention. At the same time, the court decisions that had decriminalized public drunkenness and loitering resulted in police no longer taking people into custody or forcing them to move to less visible parts of a community. Sympathy for the homeless became mixed with fear of shabbily dressed people lugging shopping bags, pushing supermarket carts, and often muttering or shouting at no one in particular. The result has been renewed efforts to criminalize the behaviors often associated with vagrancy.

These efforts, often at the urging of members of the business community, have concentrated on prohibiting sleeping in public spaces and limiting panhandling—activities that fall under the rubric of “quality of life” crimes because they are seen as frightening to the public and, in the case of sleeping in public places, as representing a health hazard for the sleepers and those in the immediate area.

Cities have also enacted laws against “aggressive panhandling,” defined by a combination of factors meant to determine the coerciveness of the actions of the panhandler. These laws have been challenged on the basis of what constitutes aggressive. Although narrowly constructed laws in this area have been upheld by the Supreme Court (Ward v. Rock Against Racism), advocates for the homeless argue that they are little more than attempts to substitute sleeping and panhandling for vagrancy as a way to remove poor people from the view of others. Supporters of the laws argue that they offer protection to the public—including both the homeless and the domiciled who use the streets and parks for nonresidential purposes.


From its beginnings in the early seventeenth century, until the second quarter of the twentieth century, the workhouse was one of the primary forms of publicly funded relief available to the destitute of Britain. Following the establishment of a national workhouse system through the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834, the workhouse gained a fearsome reputation.

In 1601 an Act for the Relief of the Poor laid the foundation of England’s “Old” Poor Law. The act established the parish as the administrative unit responsible for poor relief, with parish officials called overseers collecting poor-rates (a local property tax) and allocating relief. It also required the provision of materials such as flax, hemp, and wool to provide work for the able-bodied poor; the setting to work and apprenticeship of children; and the relief of the “impotent poor”—the old, the blind, the lame, and so on. Relief could be in the form of bread or money and could also include the provision of “houses of dwelling.”

The Spread of Workhouses

Following the 1601 act, workhouses gradually began to appear in places such as Dorchester (1617), Reading (1624), Sheffield (1628), Abingdon (1631), Taunton (1631), and Cambridge (around 1634)—most of these were in towns involved in textile production.

Knatchbull’s Act of 1723 enabled joint workhouses to be set up by neighboring parishes. It also embodied the “workhouse test”—that the prospect of workhouse should act as a deterrent, with relief available only to those who were desperate enough to accept the unpleasant workhouse regime of work, discipline, and Spartan conditions. Parliamentary reports in 1776-1777 list a total of almost 2,000 parish workhouses in operation in England and Wales—in approximately one parish in seven.

Under Knatchbull’s Act the running of workhouses could be contracted out to a third party who would undertake to feed and house the poor, charging the parish a weekly rate for each inmate. The contractor could also provide the inmates with work and keep any income generated. This system was known as “farming” the poor. As it was in the contractor’s interest to keep costs low and to maximize his income from paupers’ work, conditions in farmed workhouses were notoriously hard. Contractors often used rented premises for the duration of their contract rather than purpose-built accommodations.

Originating in the 1782 act, a growing practice around this time of supplementing low wages from the poor rates became known as the Speenhamland system, named after a Berkshire parish. It was here, in 1795, that magistrates decided to supplement wages on a scale that varied with the price of bread and number of children in a family. Many felt that the system led to able-bodied laborers believing that they were entitled to parish relief when out of work, and lacking industry and respect for their employer when working.

By the late 1820s there was increasing dissatisfaction with the relief system, particularly from the well-represented land-owning class who felt the burden of growing poor-rates. There was growing unrest, too, among the poor, particularly in rural areas—this went as far as rioting and the attacking of workhouses in the short-lived “Captain Swing” riots, named after the supposed author of threatening letters sent to landowners. In 1832 the British Government appointed a Royal Commission to review matters which led to the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834—what became known as the “New” Poor Law.

The act aimed to deter the able-bodied from claiming relief but provide a refuge for the ailing and the helpless. Unlike earlier legislation the new act imposed a uniform work-house system across the whole of England and Wales and so had an enormous impact. The country was divided into groups of parishes called “unions,” each administered by a locally elected Board of Guardians and financed from the local poor rates.

Passage of the new laws was followed by a huge nationwide building program. By 1841 320 new union workhouses had been erected, most accommodating between 200 and 400 people. A further 175 unions converted existing premises to workhouses.

Life in the union workhouse was characterized by dull repetitive routine and hard work for the able-bodied. For women this usually involved domestic duties such as washing, cleaning, and cooking. For men it included stone breaking, oakum picking (the unpicking of old ropes), and agricultural work. Discipline was strict and food was plain, consisting largely of gruel (thin porridge), bread and cheese, with a small amount of meat two or three times a week. Although in many respects workhouse life could be compared to that in a prison, entry was essentially always voluntary and inmates could leave at any time with a few hours notice.

The 1834 act received much criticism. The leading newspaper the Times claimed that the bill would “disgrace the statute-book.” The Poor Law Commission was abolished in 1847 and replaced by a new Poor Law Board. The Poor Law Board was itself succeeded in 1871 by the Local Government Board.

Reforming the System

By the start of the twentieth century, change was in the air. Two factors contributed to this. The first was the election of a significant number of women as Guardians—since the 1860s women had been active in improving workhouse conditions, particularly through bodies such as the Workhouse Visiting Society. The second, in 1892, was the lowering to £5 the property rental value necessary to qualify for Guardian election, which enabled the election of working-class people as board members.

In 1905 a Royal Commission was appointed to review the poor relief system. Although no new legislation directly resulted from the commission’s work, a number of significant pieces of social legislation took place in its wake. In 1909 an old-age pension was introduced. In 1911 unemployment insurance and health insurance began in a limited form.

From 1913 the term workhouse was replaced by poor law institution in official documents, but the institution lived on for many more years. The economic depression following World War I put a tremendous strain on the system, with some unions effectively becoming bankrupt. In 1926 the Conservative government began a reform program, culminating in 1928 with the passing of the Local Government Act that brought about many of the measures proposed by the 1909 report. The act, which came into force in 1930, abolished the 643 Boards of Guardians in England and Wales and transferred their powers and responsibilities to local councils.

Although the workhouse was officially no more, many carried on into the 1930s virtually unaltered as Public Assistance Institutions. However, physical conditions did improve a little for the inmates, the majority of whom continued to be the old, the mentally deficient, unmarried mothers, and vagrants. The real end of the workhouse came with the instigation of the new National Health Service Act in 1948.


Early in the nineteenth century the effects of the Industrial Revolution required a drastic change in the way public assistance was provided to the poor in the United States. The switch to a wage labor system resulted in many people living and working outside the communities in which they had previously been able to rely on extended families for support during hardships. As a consequence, more and more people found it necessary to apply for public assistance. When poor relief rolls grew rapidly, attempts were made to eliminate earlier forms of poor relief and substitute the widespread use of poorhouses. Growing out of the old almshouse tradition, this poorhouse system in America was modeled after the British workhouse system. However, practices governing the administration of poorhouses were modified significantly in the United States and resulted in a uniquely American institution that was utilized well into the twentieth century.

The poor relief practices that preceded the widespread use of county poorhouses relied on a patchwork of alternatives. Foremost among these practices was the provision of “outdoor” relief to people who could remain in their own homes or continue to live with friends or relatives in the community. Application for such relief was made to a local elected official, usually called a Poor Master, who could provide such things as food, clothing, firewood, or a “chit” (voucher) for medical care.

From colonial times through the beginning of the nineteenth century, these early methods of poor relief had been considered quite adequate. But with the dramatic increase in the number of people enrolling on the poor relief rolls during the first two decades of the 1800s, many began to argue that reliance on outdoor relief encouraged idleness and dependency. There was a growing belief that, while those who were legitimately unable to work (because of illness, handicaps, or age) were worthy of assistance, the relief rolls were being inflated by the growing ranks of the “unworthy” poor.

Reforms of the Nineteenth Century

The early 1800s were a period of great religious revival in the United States. Accompanying this revival was a fervent belief in social reform. Armed with a belief that those unworthy poor currently depending on public relief of their poverty could be reformed—made into more responsible citizens and better Christians—reformers saw residence in a poorhouse as the place to begin such reform.

It was also believed that a poorhouse system would have a deterrent effect and that major savings would result from that effect. If many of those applying for outdoor relief were really capable of providing for themselves, denying such relief—and instead offering only poorhouse residence—was expected to discourage such people from unnecessarily burdening taxpayers with support that kept them in their homes without having to work. Those who did go to live in a poorhouse would be required to do whatever work was asked of them that fell within their capabilities. The planned and supervised labor of poorhouse inmates was expected to help make the institution more financially self-sufficient.

From the earliest colonial period, the most basic characteristic of poor relief was that it was an exclusively local responsibility. It was not until the passage of the Social Security Act in 1935 that “welfare” became a concern of the national government. (The only previous exceptions to this involved veterans and their dependents, subjugated Indians, and victims of natural disasters, etc.) The poorhouse laws of the 1820s marked virtually the first time that states addressed the subject.

The poorhouse was a ubiquitous institution, with poorhouses scattered throughout the country until well into the twentieth century. The poorhouse was frequently the major employer in a small town. The stereotypical building was often an impressive source of civic pride, many being designed by famous architects. In spite of this most poorhouses were located in rural areas outside the more populated areas of towns and cities.

However, as the country grew and expanded westward, this pattern of poorhouse design or utilization was frequently not followed. In the less densely populated and less industrialized western and southern states, some of the older contract systems persisted, and when a poorhouse was used, it often was merely a rented or purchased farmhouse. In southern states the poorhouse campuses sometimes looked more like plantations—with a big house for the administrator and his family, separate facilities for staff, and small cabins for the inmates, who were thus more easily racially segregated. Along the frontier more punitive attitudes toward paupers persisted for a long time; and the buildings utilized as poorhouses were often multipurpose buildings that also served as jails.

The early poorhouses in America served many purposes, depending on the types of people sent to them. Eventually, special purpose institutions evolved to serve the specific needs of the differing portions of this population. Poorhouses served as orphanages, shelters for homeless families, asylums for the mentally ill or mentally retarded, nursing homes for the aged or physically handicapped, hospitals, dormitories for the seasonally unemployed or temporarily injured on the job, homes for unwed mothers, and even shelters for victims of domestic violence.

Social Security Forms a Safety Net

By 1935 the poorhouse inmate population had become much more narrowly defined. Those who remained were primarily the ill or frail elderly and some younger people who were permanently disabled. The institution had virtually become the prototype for what subsequently came to be called nursing homes. Indeed, when poorhouses were officially closed as poorhouses, they often continued to function—often in the same county-owned buildings—as nursing care facilities.

The passage of the Social Security Act in 1935 put in place the fundamental pieces of a “social safety net” that ultimately made poorhouses obsolete. The act provided retirement benefits and also contained the first national unemployment compensation program and aid to states for various health and welfare programs.

As the ultimate irony, a review of the history of poorhouses in the United States reveals that the institution was both a solution to the problem of homelessness and one of the major causes of homelessness during the nineteenth century. Specific people or specific groups of people, such as veterans, were exempted from having to go to the poorhouse—either by special laws or on a case-by-case basis. But many people who could have been enabled to live in their own homes or the homes of friends and relatives became homeless when such relief was denied. Given only the poorhouse as an alternative, many—out of fear or shame— refused to be institutionalized. They joined the ranks of what were derisively referred to as “tramps.”

The poorhouse system was a failure in many respects. It can be argued that it failed because it was based on the incorrect assumption that many, if not most, of those applying for poor relief were actually capable of supporting themselves or at least capable of doing substantial work. In reality most of those who went to poorhouses were unable to do enough work to make the institutions self-supporting. Requests for relief did not decrease under the threat of poorhouse residence; and it never proved possible to eliminate outdoor relief for sizeable numbers of applicants for whom poorhouse residence was considered inappropriate.

Nevertheless, the poorhouse served as a prototype for many specialized institutions. It was within the administration of poor relief during the poorhouse era that the social work profession was born. And the poorhouse experience also demonstrated that it was not only more humane but also more cost effective to offer support to people in their homes rather than requiring them to be institutionalized.

Hobo and Tramp Literature

One element of the hobo and tramp culture was the literature of the hobo and tramp, and of the homeless in general. It is rich and varied and features the work of some of America’s greatest authors—Jack London, Stephen Crane, Theodore Dreiser—as well as lesser-known writers such as Tom Kromer. The great theme, or tension, of the literature about homelessness is the conflict between the romantic appeal of the road and the brutal realities of the vagabond life.

A series of early writers softened the public image of tramps and hoboes for a concerned public. As a recent Princeton graduate, Walter Wykoff described his experiences as an unemployed laborer in beautifully written two-part volume The Workers: A Study in Reality (1897, 1899). William Dean Howells, the influential editor of the Atlantic, wrote a series of novels—The Undiscovered Country (1880), The Minister’s Charge (1887), A Hazard of New Fortunes (1890), A Traveler from Altruria (1894)—depicting the descent of middle-class people into homelessness, or encounters with beggars which call into question bourgeois assumptions about the deserving and undeserving poor. Josiah Flynt, himself a hobo, wrote a series of essays anthologized into Tramping with Tramps (1899), the first direct accounts of the vagabond life that were widely read.

Jack London was the first prominent writer to be smitten by the allure of the roaming life. In The Road he describes a chance meeting, while swimming, with a group of “Road Kids.” The almost foreign language they spoke, and the apparent lack of rules by which they lived, fascinated him. He quickly joined them and immediately aspired to be a “Profesh,” a professional tramp, whom he believed to be “the aggressive men, the primoridial noblemen, the blond beasts so beloved of Nietzche” (1970, 173). Jim Tully, one of the best known of the tramp memoirists, wrote first in Beggars of Life (1925, 11-12) about the harshness of his experience: “At times I cursed the wanderlust that held me in its grip,” he wrote, but then added, “…while cursing, I loved it. For it gave me freedom undreamed of in factories.”

Songs of Hobo Life

While little documentary evidence of the folklore of hobo life endures, it was a vital part of the enduring appeal of the road. Many hoboes and tramps were self-styled poets and raconteurs who told tall tales, recited lyrics, and sang songs in camps, boxcars, and “hobo jungles.” Many of the poems and songs shared by hoboes were about the idyllicized pleasures of hobo life, smoking and eating, sitting around the campfire, camaraderie on the road, and riding the rails, as conveyed in the titles of popular songs: “One More Train to Ride,” “Sitting Around Our Little Fires,” “The Last Hobo,” “Early Morning Train,” and “Catchin’ Out for Freedom.”

In addition, many hoboes were self-educated, widely read in politics and economics, and particularly well-versed in Karl Marx and other socialist writers. The political leanings of many hoboes were capitalized upon by radical labor unions, such as the Industrial Workers of the World, founded in 1905. By 1910, the I.W.W, or “Wobblies” began an aggressive campaign to recruit hoboes to their cause. Among their recruiting techniques were street theater and labor songs. Members of the I.W.W. included talented songwriters such as Joe Hill, T-Bone Slim, and Ralph Chaplin. These songs were collected in The Little Red Song Book, which at the height of the Wobblies’ influence was carried by hoboes all over the West.

Other musical forms, such as railroad work songs like Casey Jones and John Henry, became part of the hobo tradition. The blues also captured the African-American experience, particularly the journey from the rural south to the industrial north. Important artists were Robert Johnson, Lightning Hopkins, and Blind Lemon Jefferson, who himself was at times homeless, and reportedly died of exposure in Chicago in 1929.

A darker vision of the itinerant life was informed by a near-endless tide of newspaper articles during the depressions of the 1870s and 1890s, when the numbers of tramps and hoboes grew into the millions. Their headlines, a mixture of fact and fiction, decried the “Tramp Menace” and portrayed tramps and hoboes as violent, lazy, and ready to riot and pillage at any moment. While these demonizing characterizations were used, more often than not, to fuel the flames of popular hysteria and sell newspapers, the more difficult realities of the homeless life began to appear in the homeless literature of the twentieth century.

Writings on Homeless Life

Theodore Dreiser employed his own experience of near homelessness—down and out as a young man, he was a resident at the Mills Hotel, a New York City lodging house—to inform his description of one man’s fall into homelessness and despair in his 1901 masterpiece Sister Carrie. Two short pieces of journalism by Stephen Crane explore the grim truths of typical Bowery scenes. Published in the New York Press in 1894, “An Experiment in Misery” depicts a night in a flophouse. In “The Men in the Storm” (1894), a crowd of anonymous men stand in a blizzard waiting for a shelter’s doors to open.

The preeminent example of “native” homeless writing is Tom Kromer, whose writing and life are shrouded in mystery. Kromer was a homeless man who produced one book, Waiting for Nothing (1935), which was championed by Drieser, and an unfinished novel. Each chapter of Waiting for Nothing describes a different aspect of homeless life, each more brutal than the last: illness, insanity, the bread line, the flophouse, death on the rails.

Varying aspects of homelessness in the last half of the twentieth century are described by Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man (1952), Dorothy Day’s Long Loneliness (1972), and Joseph Mitchell’s Joe Gould’s Secret (1965). Recent books that capture the greater diversity of homelessness in the 1980s and 1990s are Ted Conover’s Rolling Nowhere (1984), Lars Eighner’s Travels with Lisbeth (1993), Lee Stringer’s Grand Central Winter (1998), Colum McCann’s This Side of Brightness (1998), and Nathaniel Lachenmeyer’s The Outsider (2000).

The themes of realism and romance have competed throughout the history of writings about homelessness in America. These themes are captured most poignantly in the most famous of all Western hobo ballads, “The Big Rock Candy Mountain,” which depicts a wanderer’s vision of heaven and imparts equally both the hope and the brutality of life on the road.

Great Depression

No experience defined the predicament of the Great Depression in the United States more forcefully than homelessness. As unemployment, rural collapse, and business failure mounted after 1930, millions of Americans lost their housing through evictions and bank foreclosures. More than the mere loss of shelter, homelessness symbolized the larger breakdown of the American economic system. Ubiquitous images of snaking breadlines, urban shantytowns, migrant camps, and railroad boxcars overflowing with vagrant passengers captured the broader sense of dislocation and disillusionment that had swept across the country during the Depression. In response to this crisis, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt (1882-1945), first elected in 1932, launched his sweeping New Deal program of reforms. Roosevelt’s New Deal ended neither the Great Depression nor homelessness, but it did transform the political economy of employment, housing, and welfare in such ways as to change permanently the nature and experience of homelessness.

The crisis touched every corner of America, but industrial cities were especially hard hit. Between 1930 and 1931, the number of those resorting to public shelters increased over sevenfold in Detroit and Cleveland. By 1932 Chicago sheltered more men in one day (20,000) than it had during any given year of the 1920s. Shortly after Roosevelt took office in January 1933, sociologist Nels Anderson gave a Senate subcommittee his conservative estimate that there were 1.5 million people in America without any shelter of their own.

The New Homeless

Depression-era homelessness increased dramatically not only in number, but also in variety. For the first time, women, families, African-Americans, and middle-class persons became vulnerable to mass homelessness. While single men gathered in hobo “jungles” and along skid rows, families built shantytowns, termed “Hoovervilles” in cutting reference to Roosevelt’s predecessor President Herbert Hoover (1874-1964), on abandoned lands. They also took to the road in search of work and relief, but unlike hoboes of old, they traveled mainly by automobile rather than by railroad.

Single women also composed a larger share of the homeless than in earlier eras, in part because of their increased participation in urban labor markets after World War I. Homelessness among African-Americans also increased dramatically during the Great Depression. Until World War I, when a half-million African-Americans migrated to the urban industrial North, black homelessness was relatively rare. Racial discrimination in the North made black workers more vulnerable to economic downturns both because African-Americans made less money to tide them over during periods of unemployment, and also because employers tended to lay off black workers first. As a result African-Americans in the North suffered higher rates of homelessness than the general population, making up between 15 and 27 percent of urban shelter residents in 1931.

Far more alarming to politicians, social workers, and relief officials than the increases in black and female homelessness, however, was the highly publicized plight of the “respectable” white-collar homeless. While homelessness rates among the middle class were far lower than among working people, the mere presence of businessmen, managers, and professionals in public shelters, miniscule though it was, sparked fear among the propertied classes.

Local Responses

No matter what their background, destitute persons confronted with the loss of housing sought relief first and foremost in the informal networks of kin and community that have sustained the poor from time immemorial. When family, friends, churches, unions, ethnic and benevolent societies, and other forms of neighborhood-based support proved inadequate, as they did very early during the Great Depression, the next recourse was to larger private charity organizations and municipal relief services.

By 1930 rescue missions and wayfarers lodges, the primary charitable institutions of skid row, turned away far more applicants than they could serve. Municipal authorities faced similar dilemmas and strains on their resources. With hordes of men and women seeking aid, municipalities scrambled for shelter space and also for new policies to accommodate the emergency. With cities and charities so woefully ill-equipped to handle the crisis (many communities in the South had no homeless shelters whatsoever), the homeless quickly took matters into their own hands, reviving the old hobo jungles near railroad yards and erecting shantytowns that sometimes housed hundreds or thousands of men, women, and children.

Such social cleavage rose to the level of national spectacle in the summer of 1932 when 25,000 protesting World War I veterans, demanding early payment of a “bonus” that had been awarded to them for their overseas service, descended upon Washington, D.C., and formed a massive shantytown in the heart of the nation’s capital. When General Douglas MacArthur (1880-1964) evicted the marchers at the point of bayonets on 28 July, outraged public opinion linked the draconian treatment of the marchers to President Hoover’s meager relief policies. Franklin Roosevelt, the Democratic candidate running against Hoover that summer, took advantage of the national mood by promising large-scale federal relief for America’s impoverished masses. Shortly after taking office, President Roosevelt and the newly elected Democratic Congress created the Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA), which included the first federal program specifically for the homeless: the Federal Transient Program (FTP).

During the 1930s most states still adhered to archaic settlement laws that entitled only legal residents of the state to receive any form of public relief. Originally budgeted at $15 million, the FTP was established as a part of FERA in May 1933. State relief administrators ran the program with the federal government paying for 100 percent of state expenses toward transients, which the FTP defined as anyone who had lived within the state for less than one year. By the summer of 1934, the FTP had almost a half-million Americans under its care. By the time the program was terminated in the fall of 1935, it had run over 600 facilities and had registered an estimated 1 million persons.

Unattached nonfamily men made up the bulk of transients housed in urban centers and rural camps. Like rail-riding hoboes of previous eras, Depression-era transients were overwhelmingly young, white, native-born members of the industrial working class. Two-thirds were under thirty-five years of age, and 20 percent were nineteen years old or younger. Scattered among this young white male cohort were significant numbers of women, African-Americans, and older Americans, which distinguished the transient army from the hobo armies of old.

Unlike unattached men, single women and families, who made up about 40 percent of transients, received individualized case treatment, which included private housing in apartments and hotels. Such gender discrimination conformed to the general opinion that mass shelters had a deleterious effect on family life.

In September 1935 the Roosevelt administration began phasing out the FTP and other direct relief programs under FERA in favor of a “Second New Deal” that shifted policy toward public works, unemployment compensation, old-age pensions, and welfare benefits for children and the disabled.

In replacing FERA with the Works Progress Administration (WPA) and Social Security, the Roosevelt administration shifted its focus from alleviating immediate suffering to helping struggling households remain intact, with men as breadwinners and women as caregivers.

The result of this gender-based policy shift was an almost instantaneous revival of the transient crisis that had plagued the nation during the early 1930s. Breadlines, shanty-towns, and hobo jungles sprang up like mushrooms, while lines of overloaded jalopies and freight trains filled to capacity with human cargo crisscrossed the continent. Cities and states resumed their practice of “passing on” those with no legal residence and launched harsh new antivagrancy measures that included clearing public spaces of squatters and the unemployed.

In addition to transients, a half-million migrants from Oklahoma, Texas, Arkansas, and Missouri, the so-called Okies, driven to the road by drought, eviction, farm foreclosure, and agricultural unemployment, added a new dimension to the homelessness crisis of 1935-1940. Although the vast majority of Southwest migrants flocked to urban areas in the Southwest, many sought work in the fields of California, where they shared the appalling living and working conditions of Mexican, Filipino, Japanese, and other agricultural laborers.

The FTP established an important precedent in directing the power and resources of the federal government to relieve the suffering of the homeless. But it would take over fifty years before the United States Congress would again approve any large-scale federal relief for the homeless (the McKinney Homeless Assistance Act of 1987).

Skid Row Era

Skid row derives from “skid road,” the rough-and-tumble waterfront street in nineteenth-century Seattle where logs were skidded to the sawmills. Its beginnings stretch back to 1850 and its development is tied to America’s westward expansion, the rapid exploitation of the country’s natural resources, the fluidity of unskilled labor, and the increasing differentiation of urban space.

Over the course of the nineteenth century, large pools of labor were often needed where none were locally available. Men were recruited from elsewhere to dig canals in the new western states during the 1820s and 1830s. They followed the logging frontier as it moved from New England to the Great Lakes to the Pacific Northwest. The building of America’s vast railroad network across empty prairies and over rugged mountain ranges required armies of men. Agricultural settlement followed railroad construction, and soon thereafter the need for seasonal farm labor began to grow. By the 1890s, 200,000 migrant workers annually followed the wheat harvest as it progressed through the spring and summer from Texas to Canada.

Many of these laborers were the storied American hoboes who plied an annual circuit of outdoor jobs that might take them from ice cutting in Wisconsin to railroad work camps in Montana to orange picking in California. Other migrant workers followed jobs only part of the year. Still other men took to the road not by annual design but rather because an economic downturn threw them off the land or out of factory work or, conversely, because they were lured away from farms and towns by construction jobs in the nation’s fast-growing cities.

Both as destinations and as transportation junctions, cities were focal points for itinerant laborers and transient working men, and a variety of services arose to accommodate them. In the 1850s groupings of boarding houses and saloons were already common in many cities, and men looking to stay only a night or two in a city were soon able to opt for inexpensive hotels and even saloon backrooms.

Lodging Houses

Eventually cheap lodging houses served the bulk of tramping workers and formed the nucleus of the emerging skid rows. First appearing in New York in the 1870s and then spreading rapidly to other cities, they were usually large spaces, above street level, offering shelter by the night. Initially makeshift operations in unused lofts or converted warehouses, they were a lucrative business and it was not long before buildings were being erected specifically for the purpose.

The concentrations of cheap lodging houses attracted ancillary transient men’s services. Employment agencies took up whole streets nearby, their window signs and sidewalk placards advertising railroad jobs or harvest work. Some agencies had arrangements with saloons and lodging houses to send customers to each other. Additional services, such as cheap cafes, secondhand clothing stores, and pawnshops, along with diversions like saloons, pool halls, and vaudeville-style theaters completed the commercial structure of the cheap lodging areas.

The result was that concentrated and highly distinctive transient men’s quarters formed in cities throughout the nation’s industrial and migrant work regions during the late nineteenth century, especially in the short period from the mid-1880s to the mid-1890s. Among the most important of these were New York’s Bowery, Chicago’s West Madison Street, Minneapolis’s Gateway, Omaha’s Douglas Street, Denver’s Larimer Street, and San Francisco’s South of Market. This was skid row in its heyday. Especially in western cities, the men were likely to refer to it as “the main stem.” It was always juxtaposed to the central business and warehouse districts and in close proximity to the docks or rail depots, part of an interwoven fabric of areas on the urban margin that included red-light districts, connected to and yet standing apart from the social and economic mainstream.

Despite their high population turnover, the skid rows fostered a sense of community and identity. Men on the tramp felt at home in them. They were neighborhoods in the simplest meaning of the term. The saloon was unquestionably the major social focal point on skid row, just as it was for the working man everywhere. More than just a source of drink, it was an indoor venue where the men could sit and relax, smoke, or play cards. It was a haven, a rest stop for hoboes fresh from a journey hiding in boxcars or clinging precariously to their undercarriages.

Most of those attracted to skid row were working men passing through as part of a migrant or shifting work life. Of the rest, some did not travel much at all except perhaps to leave one skid row for another, often working odd jobs, such as loading or unloading warehouses or washing dishes in restaurants. Others who lingered on the main stem, however, only occasionally took jobs and sometimes not at all; they were a motley group of old-timers, alcoholics, and men with physical or psychological handicaps who begged for handouts.

The population was overwhelmingly male and white. Lodging houses and the other services generally discriminated against black homeless men, who consequently tended to board with families in black residential areas. The skid row population was mostly native-born or immigrants from the British Isles. These were mostly men in the prime of life, in their twenties, thirties, and forties, following an active work life that was a transitional passage to a more settled existence.

As the casual promiscuity of the preindustrial city gave way to more specialized land use, stricter standards of behavior evolved for city streets and sidewalks. Urban police, who dealt with the threat of the “dangerous classes” and with the implications of a rapidly changing urban geography, stepped up their actions against unattached and homeless workingmen, and patrolmen began to focus on cheap lodging houses, skid row sidewalks and alleyways, nearby parks, and even rail yards whenever outbreaks of crime or labor unrest raised concerns in the community at large.

Reformers tried more constructive ways to deal with skid row. They developed an ambitious model-housing idea as an answer to both cheap lodgings and the indiscriminate overnight housing of homeless men in police stations. Municipally operated lodging houses, fixtures in most cities with large transient worker populations by the early twentieth century, started out with the idea that the city should deter the shiftless worker while helping the honest but destitute one. They usually required the men to earn their stay by chopping wood or doing street repairs, and they made some effort to direct them to real jobs. However, they also required the men to take showers and then sent them out to job interviews with fumigated clothes whose unmistakable odor branded them. By 1920 most municipal lodging houses had shed any pretense to rehabilitating the men and were simply public flophouses. Religious rescue missions were still another response to skid row. The first one appeared in New York in 1872, and by 1900 they were a feature of skid rows everywhere.

By the 1920s, several factors had combined to change the character of migrant work and with it, skid row. Mechanization in agriculture and lumbering eliminated the need for most of the seasonal laborers, as did the decline in railroad construction. What casual unskilled work remained could be done by labor that was increasingly available as the population grew in what had earlier been outlying areas. The automobile also altered the style and patterns of travel for migrant workers.

The men on skid row therefore became a smaller and more select group. Fewer were the transient young working men for whom skid row was part of a peripatetic life stage in the interval between adolescence and marriage, and more were men enamored of life on the road or, more importantly, a stationary group working at odd jobs in and around the city who in the tramping vernacular were called the “home guard.” The main stem was beginning its transformation into skid row.

The Great Depression of the 1930s created a new public awareness of skid row, which was inundated in these years with unemployed men. Even women and families were no longer an uncommon sight on skid rows. In 1933 Congress created the Federal Transient Program, which added federally run shelters to skid row. The Works Progress Administration superseded the federal shelter program in 1935, but its programs focused on families or on single men without a history of tramping.

Even though most men on skid row did not stay in them, shelters nonetheless became the new symbols of skid row for the outside world. Skid row was becoming identified with welfare. Skid row was therefore no longer a way station in a progressive work life for its denizens but rather an unwanted siding, or even a dead end.

Changing Nature of Skid Row

The wartime industrial buildup and the end of the Great Depression eradicated the unemployment problem that had brought so many men to skid row. As a result, skid row’s population declined rapidly. The men who remained on skid row—mostly the home guard, the handicapped, and pensioners—were an older group, although still overwhelmingly white and native-born.

As the population dwindled in the years after World War II, skid row lost the hustle and bustle that had come from the constant turnover of migrant workers. Unlike the main stem’s dense concentration of lodging houses and other places serving homeless men, skid row blocks were now likely to be a pastiche of scattered services mixed in with empty lots, vacant spaces, boarded-up frontages, and storage facilities and other low-end businesses unrelated to homeless men’s needs but attracted to the area by cheap rents.

The men increasingly retreated indoors, to the few bars and theaters that were open to them, as well as to the single-room-occupancy hotels and much depleted flophouses and cage hotels in which many of them stayed more or less continuously. Hotel proprietors now commonly allowed the men to sit in the lobby and watch television.

The deterioration of skid row in the postwar years invited municipal “clean-up” efforts. Skid row occupied areas downtown that were prime candidates for urban renewal schemes and interstate highway routes, as cities seeking to revive their downtowns in an age of expansive suburban development mounted campaigns to clear away their “blighted” neighborhoods. Kansas City, Los Angeles, Sacramento, Denver, Minneapolis, New York, Philadelphia, and Detroit had all razed large segments of their skid rows by 1960 or were contemplating doing so. Skid rows had virtually disappeared by the 1980s. The destruction of skid rows abruptly uprooted their inhabitants, leaving them to fend for themselves. Cities gave only lip service to organized relocation services. The men, some of whom might have lived in the same cage hotel for years, drifted off to single-room-occupancy hotels elsewhere in the city or to shelters and missions.