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A Brief History of Homelessness: Illustrating one of MSC’s Fundamental Beliefs

Last week I introduced a series of blogs that I’ll write over the next several weeks focusing on MSC’s fundamental beliefs.  This post is the first in that series. 

One of MSC’s core beliefs is that homelessness was created by society and can therefore be solved by society. Using history as our guide, please allow me to expand on our rationale for this belief in today’s post.

The history of homelessness is almost as complex as the issue itself. In Helping America’s Homeless, Martha Burt states that housing affordability was, and is, assumed to be the immediate cause of homelessness.[1]  In this brief space, I’d like to propose another historical perspective:  the root cause of homelessness is the lack of an adequate personal support system. 

Our nation’s first major homeless episode occurred during the Great Depression when, conservative estimates show, more than one million people experienced homelessness at any given point in time. Prior to the 1930s people were certainly, at times, in need of a place to stay – just think about the displacement caused by the Civil War. The difference, however, between the late 19th and early 20th centuries can be traced to mobilization resulting from increased industrialization. As our country became less agrarian it also became much more mobile.  As people ventured further from their hometowns, farms, and communities their support systems dwindled. When times became tough and you were near your extended family, church, and community there existed a much greater safety net than when you had ventured across country alone (or only with your nuclear family) in pursuit of uncertain opportunity. Following the stock market collapse in 1929, people throughout the United States faced exceedingly high unemployment (often 25% or worse) and, especially those who had moved out West, a small or nonexistent support system. While the Great Depression illustrates extreme socio-economic woes, it nevertheless points to the importance of a personal safety net.

During the decades between the 1930s and 1980, our country experienced relatively little homelessness. Yes, there were people, almost exclusively men, traveling the country seeking work or opportunity and staying in motels or YMCAs but they were, in fact, keeping a roof over their own heads and not in need of public support. By 1987 homelessness had become so pervasive in the United States that Congress enacted the Stewart McKinney Act, the first full-scale federal funding effort to address this growing problem. So, what fostered the explosion of homelessness when it hadn’t occurred on any significant scale for 50 years? Conventional thought focuses on federal housing policies brought to scale beginning around 1980. Certainly, the demolition of large scale housing projects in the nation’s urban centers displaced large numbers of low income families. I would argue that such policies, particularly when standing alone, wouldn’t result in the massive homeless services system that was created in the 1980’s and ballooned throughout the 1990s and 2000s. The fact that homelessness over the last 30 years has become increasingly problematic in small and rural communities underscores that housing policy targeting our urban centers cannot be the underlying culprit. Something else is at play.

As personal mobility increased throughout the 20th century, the desire or perceived need to remain close to family and community waned. People could still keep in touch through mail and long distance phone calls; and later through pagers, email, or teleconferencing; and now even more immediately through Skype, cell phones, texting, and instant messaging. Many people no longer felt the need to be physically close to relatives and community because they could still easily communicate with friends and loved ones. But, what about during times of personal crisis? It’s just not the same to find support through text messaging when dealing with a major life issue (unemployment, domestic violence, addiction, mental illness). By the time an issue in someone’s life became critical they often were too embarrassed to share and because they were physically separated from people who cared about them it was easier to avoid or hide an issue until too late. During a life crisis and, especially, for people with low incomes who cannot easily book a last minute flight, get in a car and drive, or wire large sums of money, distance fostered an erosion of personal support systems. 

Today, we have an enormous homeless services system across the United States that has replaced the safety net traditionally provided by families, congregations, and communities. Huge sums of money have not solved the problem. So, what’s the solution? We just can’t dismantle our existing shelter and services system because so many lives would be lost. We also cannot just continue the status quo because there are not unlimited resources.

At the Men’s Shelter of Charlotte, we’ve taken our cue from history and identified three areas of focus that we’ve illustrated through the equation:  Income+Housing+Support = An End to Homelessness. In many ways the income and housing pieces of the puzzle are easiest; after all, they’re focused on tangible resources. The true solution to the problem of homelessness lies in what I argue is the root cause – lack of personal support. Once we can re-establish individual support systems, then we can help people break their cycle of homelessness. It’s taken our country over 100 years to erode traditional support systems and more than 30 years to replace those safety nets with our current homeless services system. We won’t be able to move the dial overnight. But, if we learn from our past, we know that focusing on re-inventing systems of support for families and individuals is critical. Only then we will no longer need our de facto housing system and agencies such as the Men’s Shelter of Charlotte can continue to exist as part of a short-term crisis-intervention system for those whose safety net isn’t strong enough by itself. The good news is that since we created this problem in relatively recent years, we can harness what history teaches to understand what it will take to put an end to homelessness… soon.

Next week I’ll discuss MSC’s second fundamental belief: To successfully end their homeless experience, men need support and assistance appropriate to their individual situations; providing too much assistance is wasteful, while too little support fosters failure. Stay tuned!

[1] Burt, Martha, Aron, Laudan Y., Lee, Edgar, and Valente, Jesse. 2001. Helping America’s Homeless: Emergency Shelter or Affordable Housing? Washington, D.C.: The Urban Institute Press.  I’m indebted to the introduction to this book as I framed this essay. 

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Carson Dean

In September 2008 I became the Executive Director of the Men's Shelter of Charlotte. I've spent almost 15 years working to end homelessness in North Carolina. After working with homeless and runaway youth in Raleigh, I served as the Director of the South Wilmington Street Center (men's shelter) in Wake County and then worked on Orange County's 10 Year Plan to End Homelessness. I am a former board chair for the North Carolina Coalition to End Homelessness and former chair of the Homeless Services Network in Charlotte. In 2014 I served as the partner agency representative on the United Way Central Carolinas board of directors.

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