Over the Edge: The Growth of Homelessness in the 1980s
The Way Home: A New Direction in Social Policy
Down and Out in America: The Origins of Homelessness
Down on Their Luck: A Study of Homeless Street People
The Mole People
Rude Awakenings: What the Homeless Crisis Tells Us
Late in the 1970s Americans began noticing more people sleeping in public places, wandering the streets with their possessions in shopping bags, rooting through garbage bins in search of food or cans, and asking for handouts. By January 1981, when Ronald Reagan took office, a small group of activists led by Robert Hayes and Mitch Snyder had given these people a new name—“the homeless”—and had begun to convince the public that their plight was a serious one. Later that year America entered its worst recession in half a century, and the homeless became far more numerous. At the time, many people saw this as a temporary problem that would vanish once the economy recovered, but they were wrong. Unemployment fell from almost 10 percent in 1983 to just over 5 percent in 1989, but homelessness kept rising.
The spread of homelessness disturbed well-to-do Americans for both personal and political reasons. The faces of the homeless often suggest depths of despair that we would rather not imagine, much less confront in the flesh. Daily contact with the homeless also raises troubling questions about our moral obligations to strangers. Politically, the spread of homelessness suggests that something has gone fundamentally wrong with America’s economic and social institutions.
Because homelessness is both deeply disturbing emotionally and controversial politically, it has inspired a steady flow of books and reports by journalists, political activists, and scholars. These publications cover a multitude of different issues, but I will concentrate on what they can tell us about three questions: how much homelessness increased during the 1980s, why it increased, and what we can do to reduce it.
As soon as homelessness became a political issue, legislators and journalists began asking for numbers. The Census Bureau was in no position to answer their questions, because it had always counted Americans by making lists of “dwelling units” and then trying to determine how many people lived in each unit. The bureau had never made much effort to count people living in bus stations, subways, abandoned buildings, parks, doorways, or dumpsters. Nor did it try to fill this gap when public interest in the homeless exploded in the early 1980s. Even the 1990 Census, which attempted a systematic count of people in various kinds of shelters, made only a half-hearted effort to count the roughly equal number of homeless adults who were not in shelters.
In the absence of official statistics, both journalists and legislators fell back on estimates provided by activists. In the late 1970s Mitch Snyder argued that a million Americans were homeless. In 1982 he and Mary Ellen Hombs raised this estimate to between two and three million. Lacking better figures, others repeated this guess, usually without attribution. In due course it became so familiar that many people treated it as a well-established fact.
Widespread acceptance of Snyder’s estimate apparently convinced the Reagan administration that leaving statistics on homelessness to private enterprise was a political mistake, and in 1984 the …
‘Down on Their Luck’ March 23, 1995