Housing the Homeless

Over the Edge: The Growth of Homelessness in the 1980s

by Martha R. Burt
Russell Sage Foundation and the Urban Institute Press, 267 pp., $16.95 (paper)

A Place to Call Home: The Low Income Housing Crisis Continues Information Service

by Edward Lazere, by Paul Leonard, by Cushing Dolbeare, by Barry Zigas
Center on Budget and Policy Priorities and Low Income Housing, 83 pp., $12.00 (paper)

Tell Them Who I Am: The Lives of Homeless Women

by Elliot Liebow
Free Press, 339 pp., $24.95

The Way Home: A New Direction in Social Policy

by the New York City Commission on the Homeless (Andrew Cuomo, chair)
(unpublished), 118 and appendices pp.

Down and Out in America: The Origins of Homelessness

by Peter H. Rossi
University of Chicago Press, 247 pp., $9.95 (paper)

New Homeless and Old: Community and the Skid Row Hotel

by Charles Hoch, by Robert Slayton
Temple University Press, 299 pp., $19.95 (paper)

When the numbers of homeless people began to increase in the early 1980s, their advocates often blamed the housing market for what was happening. In those years, the homeless were mostly poor single adults, many of whom had traditionally lived in “single room occupancy” (SRO) hotels and rooming houses. Since these SROs had been disappearing, it seemed natural to suppose that many of their former tenants were now homeless. Later in the decade, when the number of homeless families increased, many people who worked with the homeless blamed the growing shortage of cheap apartments—a shortage that they often attributed to cutbacks in federal housing programs.

Of course there are other explanations for increased homelessness. In an earlier article I argued that changes in the way we treated the mentally ill, declining demand for unskilled workers, declining rates of marriage among young mothers, declining welfare benefits, and the crack epidemic were among the causes. Here, however, I shall concentrate on the housing market, giving particular attention to the ways that federal and local governments have reshaped the choices available to the very poor, and how we could do better in the future.

During the winter of 1958 a young University of Chicago demographer named Donald Bogue conducted an unusually careful survey of Chicago’s major skid-row neighborhoods. He concluded that just over one hundred men typically spent the night in public places, either walking around or dozing in all-night restaurants and movie theaters, while almost a thousand slept in free shelters. (At that time shelters were mostly run by evangelists eager to save lost souls and were known as “missions.”) Using today’s definitions, therefore, about 1,100 people were homeless in Chicago on an average winter night.

In the winter of 1986 Peter Rossi, the author of Down and Out in America, made another early morning survey of Chicago’s shelters and public places. By then about 500 adults were spending the night in public places, while another 1,600 adults and 300 children were in shelters on a typical night. Overall, the city’s homeless population had roughly doubled.

When Bogue did his survey, however, Chicago’s 1,100-odd homeless men made up only a small minority of its skid-row population, most of whom lived in what were politely known as cubicle hotels. These were not SROs in the 1990s sense of the word. They housed their patrons in windowless five- by seven-foot rooms furnished with a bed, a chair, and a bare light bulb. The cubicles were separated by wooden walls and ventilated through wire mesh near the ceiling and floor. They were noisy, usually verminous, and frequently smelled of urine, vomit, or both. Because of the wire mesh and the smells, their patrons called them cage hotels.

Nonetheless, almost all skid-row residents preferred a cubicle in one of these hotels to a bed in a shelter. A cubicle of one’s own provided more privacy and security than a shelter, which housed residents in …

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