Homelessness: A Brief History

written by naehblog
July 1, 2009

So, to kick things off, here’s a nice, soft introduction into how we got where we are today:

Homelessness has been around pretty much since there were more people than homes (read: a long, long time). A number of national and economic events (anyone remember theGreat Depression?) prompted bursts of homelessness from time to time, but local and federal authorities usually answered the need. Homelessness as we know it today surged around the 1980s.

Why the 80s? Good question.

Perhaps the most sensationalized – and one of the more controversial – cause of modern-day homelessness is deinstitutionalization.

The 1950s and 1960s saw a wave of activism against mental health institutions as reports of neglect, abuse, and mistreatment in such facilities became commonplace. The goal of deinstitutionalization was to move people who are mentally ill and disabled from these institutions intocommunity-based health centers, where they would be fewer restrictions on patients and a lesser financial burden to federal and state coffers. (Popular opinion seems to fault President Reagan for deinstitionalization, but my own research has not validated that opinion.) Many argue that the effort has been unsuccessful, and that people who are mentally ill are now housed in the criminal justice system or are homeless altogether.

As a result, some say that deinstitutionalization, coupled with decreasing availability of affordable housing and economic fluctuations (and a plethora of other factors), caused the homeless population to rise considerably in the late 20th century.

Other populations joined this group later – those with addiction, victims of financial distress, veterans, etc.

As the homeless population grew, places where people were freely allowed to roam became more restricted: churches, public restrooms, libraries, museums – these places all closed their doors, hired security, and/or otherwise made efforts to reduce the number of homeless people in their buildings. This forced the homeless population to bridges, tunnels, parks, sidewalks – many of the places we see them today.

That’s the bad news.

The good news is that since the 1980s, there have been efforts – though fragmented – to address, prevent, reduce, and ultimately end homelessness. And the even better news is that these fragmented efforts have started producing real results. Between 2005 and 2007, homelessness fell 10 percent. This is because we’ve finally started figuring out what works. We know how to end homelessness and sometimes how to prevent it altogether.

How, you ask? That’s another post.

In the meantime, let us know what you think about the role of deinstitutionalization on the homelessness population. How has it contributed to homelessness? Was it good/bad/horrible idea? What can we do about it – and the chronically homeless population?

Feel free to let us know.