The History of Modern Homelessness

Posted on June 20, 2017

Welcome to a new blog series about homelessness from San Rafael’s Director of Homeless Planning & Outreach, Andrew Hening. In each post, Andrew will discuss the root causes, overarching strategies and tactics for addressing homelessness in your community. Learn more about what San Rafael is doing to end homelessness.

Did Homelessness Start in 1982? 

Homelessness – or a lack of a fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence – has of course existed for a very long time.  Thinking just about the United States, in the 19th century tens of thousands of people experienced homelessness as cities (and the country itself) rapidly grew and urbanized.  The word “hobo”, for example, originated in the 1890s in the Pacific Northwest as a term for homeless migratory workers.  In the 1930s, hundreds of thousands of people became homeless during the Great Depression, with many people ending up in “Hoovervilles” (essentially homeless encampments).

The homelessness that we see today is clearly not the result of a rapidly urbanizing country, and it’s not really the result of a specific economic downturn (though that’s much closer).  No, “modern” homelessness really began in the early 1980s as the consequence of multiple economic, political, and social changes in our country.

#1 The federal government dramatically slashed funding for affordable housing.

There was an over 90% reduction in affordable housing dollars.

#2 Federal and state governments dramatically slashed funding for mental health beds.

There was an over 90% reduction in per capita psychiatric beds.

#3 Real wages began stagnating. (The minimum wage today supplies about 50% or less of the buying power it did in the early 1980s)

Real wages have stagnated since the 1970s

#4 Major social safety net gaps left thousands of Vietnam Veterans without support.

For an excellent video highlighting the history of homelessness in the Bay Area, watch the video below from CBS news:


Video about history of homelessness

The Takeaways:

1. Homelessness is an extreme manifestation of poverty.  As our systems for alleviating poverty are cut back, homelessness gets worse.

2. Public policy plays a critical role.

3. Local communities have had a very difficult time mobilizing an effective response to a problem that was once somewhat effectively prevented at a national level.

Watch Andrew talk about this:


Read the next installment, The 5 Local Approaches to Homelessness…

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