Curatorial Director Dave answers your questions.
Homelessness has been a presence in New York since shortly after Peter Minuit completed his celebrated “purchase” of Manhattan Island from the Native Americans in 1626. During the ensuing three and a half centuries, a variety of approaches have been taken by churches, municipal government, and countless private charities in an effort to address a problem of ever changing nature and dimensions.
Historians have long debated the nature of poverty in American history, but most agree that no clear line separated ordinary working people from those in need of help because of periodic destitution. The result of great social and economic transformations in American life, poor and homeless families were most often those caught in the throes of a society experiencing unprecedented changes in the nature of work. As a result, homelessness was often temporary or intermittent. Nevertheless, between 1865 and the 1930s, as American made the difficult transition from a primarily agrarian society to an urban and industrial one, a much enlarged homeless populated emerged
The urban origins of a vagrant, homeless population are significant. The new homelessness of the late 19th and early 20th centuries was an indigenous aspect of a country in rapid transition from an agricultural and small town society to one centered in great cities. At the time, a study found that two-thirds of New York’s homeless men were born in cities, and most of the remainder had grown up in towns, not farming communities.
For many workers, employment was sporadic regardless of the general health of the economy. In 1900, about one-fifth of all workers in the United States were out of work from one to twelve months. In an era that predates unemployment insurance and/or workers compensation, periodic employment often equaled periodic homelessness. Even if workers had been completely willing to adapt themselves to changing industrial conditions (and often they were not), a certain number would have become vagrants because of the surplus labor created by these conditions. Seasonal labor, the introduction of new machinery, and the replacement of adult workers by child labor all created unemployment. The resulting demoralization undoubtedly led many men and their families into homelessness.
Fluctuations in the business cycle of the new industrial economy, which periodically resulted in sharp increases in unemployment, invariably led to an upsurge in the number of homeless. This was undoubtedly the case in the 1870s, 1890s, and the 1930s, when economic crises befell the American people.
No longer confined to the city’s “skid rows,” the contemporary homeless population has not only grown, but has taken on new dimensions. It contains a much greater number of mentally-ill individuals than ever before. Entire families lose their homes as their breadwinners face long-term unemployment and as the low-income housing in the marginal areas of the city that once provided them with a safety net is lost or destroyed by gentrification and development.