The History of Homelessness in America

The term “homelessness” was first used in America in the 1870s. In the McKinney–Vento Homeless Assistance Act, homelessness is referred to as the condition where people lack a “fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence.” According to the Texas Homeless Network, the 1640s “mark the earliest documented instances of unhoused people surviving in America.” Today, there are approximately half a million people facing homelessness across America. Here is a timeline of how homelessness has changed over the years and how American leaders have reacted to the issue of homelessness.

1600-1700s: The Beginning

The earliest cases of homelessness in America were documented in the 1640s. In 1734, the first poor house opened in New York City, serving as homeless shelters as well as mental institutions and jails. 

1800s: Initial Treatment to Those Who Faced Homelessness

The industrial revolution of the 1820s caused a large number of people to move to the Northeast, increasing the amount of people experiencing homelessness as they sought for work. In response, cities created laws that banned loitering and panhandling as well as begging in the streets. Furthermore, police departments would round up those who were homeless and put them in jails overnight. In 1830, President Andrew Jackson signed the Indian Removal Act, which was the first major federal legislation to create mass homelessness.

1930s: The Effects from the Great Depression

The Great Depression and natural disasters led to a monumental increase in homelessness and unemployment in America. As a result, the New Deal was created in 1933, which created programs to build wealth for Americans and reduce the homeless population. The New Deal helped put an end to the Great Depression by stabilizing prices and paving a way for Americans to find jobs; however, African Americans were excluded from most New Deal programs. Black populations were also prohibited from accessing public benefits, and Black homes and businesses were actively displaced for the intention of urban renewal. The Texas Homeless Network states that “these discriminatory practices paved the way for African Americans’ overrepresentation in homeless populations today.”

1960-1990s: Homelessness Worsens

During this time, mental hospitals, community-based housing and support resources were deinstitutionalized. This resulted in homelessness for tens of thousands of Americans who utilized those resources. In 1968, the Fair Housing Act was passed to outlaw housing discrimination; however, it was never fully enforced. Continuous housing discrimination and gentrification caused people of color, specifically Black and Native Americans, to be at higher risk of homelessness. Furthermore, during the 1980s, the HIV/AIDS epidemic caused an increase in the amount of people experiencing homelessness. According to Jeff Olivet in his article A Brief Timeline of Race and Homelessness in America, there was an 80% reduction in federal investments for public housing, along with cuts to other social safety net programs, resulting in a spike in homelessness and laying the groundwork for the contemporary homelesness epidemic.

2000-2010s: Change Begins

In the early 2000’s, federal, national and local initiatives began to address homelessness and adopted practices to prevent homelessnesss. However, unhoused people of color were not the central focus and were heavily overlooked. Nevertheless, in 2010, the issue of homelessness and racism was addressed by Jeff Olivet and Marc Dones from the Center for Social Innovation, who gave speeches on the problem at national and statewide conferences. Furthermore, blogs and podcasts surrounding homeless people of color were spread. In 2016, the Supporting Partnerships for Anti-Racist Communities was launched, which is a multi-city initiative on race and homelessness. The U.N. Committee was given reports on racial discrimination in housing. Later, there was a White House briefing on homeless youth in America with an emphasis on racial equity. This prompted programs such as the National Alliance to End Homelessness, Funders Together to End Homelessness, the National Health Care for the Homeless Council and more to begin their work and center on racial equity and homelessness. In 2010, a federal strategic plan to end homelessness was released under President Obama’s administration, which sought to end chronic homelessness and homelessness among veterans, families, and youth within 10 years.

2010-Present: Where we are now

In 2019, a group of national partners began strategizing how to prevent and end homelessness, continuing to focus on racial equity. In response to the COVID-19 pandemic in 2021, Biden signed the American Rescue Plan, which invests $5 billion for the development of “affordable housing, tenant-based rental assistance, supportive services, and acquisition and development of non-congregate shelter units” to help those experiencing homelessness. 

Homelessness has been a pressing issue in America and was not dealt with properly in the past. Only recently has change begun. While there is a lot of work to be done, with more people aware of the issue and insisting on change, homelessness will dissipate and millions of lives will change for the better.


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