With homeless people strewn across cities, young Americans might think the problem is inevitable. But it was not always so — and need not be.
Panhandling at subway entrance on “Billionaires’ Row” (57th Street) (Photo by Susan Ruel)
NEW YORK – Young people of college age today might imagine that homeless people have always been an inescapable fact of life in U.S. cities – especially in, say, midtown Manhattan.
After all, for far longer than millennials (let alone members of Generation Z) have been alive, the sight of people living on sidewalks and in parks and public spaces has been a nearly ubiquitous feature of the American urban experience.
We who came of age in the 1970s can attest that during our early years, at least, homelessness was far less common and visible in major metropolitan areas. Our parents may have told horror stories about the shantytowns of the Great Depression, but baby boomers didn’t grow up seeing homelessness as a routine part of the landscape.
This was not a real-life problem that I witnessed during childhood, on frequent trips to Boston or occasional visits to New York and other cities. Back then, even the word homelessness had not yet gained currency.
So how and when did homelessness start to become a familiar (and seemingly insoluble) social problem?
Homeless people always seemed relatively unusual.
In New York City –– and in urban areas nationwide –– the roots of this trend are usually traced back to the late 1970s.
As that decade waned, several factors combined to spark a rise in New York’s homeless population:
- a housing shortage triggered by the sharp decline in single-room-occupancy dwellings, from 129,000 in 1960 to 25,000 by 1978;
- the “deinstitutionalization” of New York state mental hospitals. From 1965 to 1979, the number of patients living in upstate psychiatric centers declined by 68 percent; and
- the gradual erosion of jobs in manufacturing sectors.
In that era, I remember observing a gradual increase in homelessness and a slow transformation in attitudes toward it.
At college in the mid-1970s, I saw and sometimes spoke to a few individuals who seemed to be residing, at least temporarily, in Boston’s central bus station. I also recall a young African-American who lived near the entrance to the main public library in Copley Square.
He displayed a large sign: “Welcome to the outside world. It is stone.”
Across the river, Harvard Square had no shortage of street people who blended in with the casual, disheveled style of the period. One young busker sometimes got into fistfights on the sidewalk, his guitar case still strapped to his back.
In general, homeless people still seemed relatively unusual –– and therefore noticeable and sometimes memorable.
“The public was getting rapidly inured to this new normal.”
When I came back home after living overseas in the early 1980s, the national economy was in a slump that some labeled “Reaganomics.” It was surprising to notice swelling numbers of homeless people in the cities where I lived and worked: Denver, San Francisco and Washington, D.C.
It also struck me that the public (myself included) was rapidly getting inured to this new normal.
As a wire service reporter in San Francisco, I wrote one of my first feature stories about burgeoning homelessness in 1983. The factors there were strikingly similar to those cited earlier for rising homelessness in New York: a housing shortage, gentrification and loss of manufacturing jobs.
As Jonathan Kozol, the noted author of the 1987 book “Rachel and Her Children: Homeless Families in America,” wryly put it: “The cause of homelessness is lack of housing.”
In 1986, I moved to midtown Manhattan and have lived here since. When I arrived, it was not unusual to see homeless people living above and below ground, in the subways.
On Thanksgiving Day in 1987, the census of New York City’s shelters counted 5,116 families with children — and 10,945 homeless children. The years that followed brought the crack cocaine epidemic. Homeless adults, occasionally with small children in tow, were a commonplace sight in Grand Central Station and other public places.
“I encounter homeless people at every turn.”
Back then I volunteered at Covenant House, a spacious shelter for homeless teenagers not far from Port Authority bus station.
I got to know some of the residents: a young lady whose single mother was killed by a hit-and-run driver; a 15-year-old, adopted as a baby in Korea, who became homeless when his parents broke up; and a girl from the rural South, visibly pregnant a month or two after she arrived.
Friends and I came up with our own little class offerings for the residents, including aerobic dance, high-school equivalency test tutoring and a reading group to discuss short stories by the writer Alice Walker.
By the 1990s, I was reporting on the founder of Covenant House, a Catholic priest forced to step down after accusations of sexual abuse. I wrote about Project Hope, a now-defunct program run by psychiatrists who monitored New York’s homeless schizophrenics.
Decades have passed since then, a string of mayors have served out their terms in office and opioids have replaced crack. Yet another initiative to end homelessness is now under way –Mayor Bill de Blasio’s 114-page “Turning the Tide” plan. Homelessness in New York is as omnipresent as ever, though.
Commuting daily from Columbus Circle to an office near Penn Station, I encounter homeless people at every turn. Earlier this year, the New York City Department of Homeless Services counted almost 65,000 people — including 22,293 children in the public school system and 17,085 parents with children. An estimated 3,700 more sleep on the streets.
New realities fuel this persistent problem: soaring real estate values, a tide of evictions and income inequality, which is highest nationally in New York. From 2005 to 2015, rents here increased an average of 18.4 percent, while incomes went up by an average of just 4.8 percent, according to experts and city leaders at a recent public forum on homelessness.
“Affordable housing is vanishing.”
My recent experiences volunteering at a small church-run shelter on Manhattan’s Upper West Side lend credence to this analysis of the factors driving up homelessness in New York.
Some women who spend the night there speak openly about New York’s skyrocketing rents, evictions and the hardships of life on the street. This motley group ranges in age from early 20s to septuagenarians, and features immigrants from the West Indies, Asia, Hungary and Iraq, as well as whites and African-Americans.
As they recline on lumpy cots in the church basement, many collapse into sleep, although it’s only 9 p.m. Others get in line to take showers.
Lynn, a Haitian-American who once lived in Brooklyn, kicks off a conversation on how she became homeless. She laments how abruptly her family was evicted from their East Flatbush apartment some years back, to make way for gentrification.
“You can complain all you want, but they always seem to have mysterious reasons for what they do!” Lynn says. She seems pleased to hear that the front page of the New York Times that day features a new series of articles on the the city’s housing crisis, including a piece headlined “The Eviction Machine.”
“Affordable housing is vanishing as landlords exploit a broken system, pushing out rent-regulated tenants and catapulting apartments into the free market,” the newspaper says.
“Homelessness is an industry.”
Eileen, an Iraqi immigrant who will soon turn 70, chimes in. She says she moved to California 10 years ago after serving as an army translator in Baghdad. In heavily accented English, she describes her prosperous lifestyle on the West Coast. Moving to New York and getting overwhelmed and priced out by soaring rents was her biggest mistake, Eileen says.
“Homelessness is an industry. The funds are squandered to line the pockets of those who have found the way to make the system work for them,” she comments. “They are making a tremendous amount of money. We should go into this business – but I’m too tired.”
What is most disturbing is how much these homeless women resemble other New Yorkers, as they discuss books they are reading or sometimes even reminisce about being in grad school or studying abroad. A few set their alarms earlier than the 5:30 a.m. wake-up call and hurry off to work.
Then the other women awaken, put away their cots and suit up to face the day. Wearing jeans and sneakers and carrying backpacks, many will blend in almost seamlessly with throngs of tourists.
“Being back outside and homeless after spending the night at the shelter, I feel like I’m re-entering an invisible war zone,” says Janeen, who grew up wealthy in Chicago before being estranged from her family.
The causes and solutions for homelessness in New York and nationwide are far more complicated than can be touched on here. Those born in the past few decades may be forgiven for thinking that homelessness is an inevitable, even eternal fact of life in American cities.
But those my age or older speak from experience when we say that it wasn’t always like this.
Susan Ruel has worked on the international desks of the Associated Press and United Press International, and reported for UPI from Shanghai, San Francisco and Washington. A former journalism professor, she co-authored two French books on U.S. media history. A Fulbright scholar in West Africa, she has served as an editorial consultant for the United Nations in New York and Nigeria. Since 2005, she has been writing and editing for healthcare non-profits in New York.