Down and Out, On the Road: The Homeless in American History

Down and Out, On the Road: The Homeless in American History

Down and Out, On the Road: The Homeless in American History

Down and Out, On the Road: The Homeless in American History

Synopsis

Covering the entire period from the colonial era to the late twentieth century, this book is the first scholarly history of the homeless in America. Drawing on sources that include records of charitable organizations, sociological studies, and numerous memoirs of formerly homeless persons, Kusmer demonstrates that the homeless have been a significant presence on the American scene for over two hundred years. He probes the history of homelessness from a variety of angles, showing why people become homeless; how charities and public authorities dealt with this social problem; and the diverse ways in which different class, ethnic, and racial groups perceived and responded to homelessness. Kusmer demonstrates that, despite the common perception of the homeless as a deviant group, they have always had much in common with the average American. Focusing on the millions who suffered downward mobility, Down and Out, On the Road provides a unique view of the evolution of American society and raises disturbing questions about the repeated failure to face and solve the problem of homelessness.

Excerpt

When New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani announced in December 1999 that he would require the homeless to work before they could receive a bed in a shelter, he probably was unaware that his proposed policy revived a very old historical tradition. For a time in the 1820s, persons convicted of vagrancy in New York City were forced to labor on a treadmill, and from the 1880s to the 1930s it was common throughout the country for men staying in homeless shelters to have to chop wood or break stone for two or three hours before receiving a meal and a bed for the night.

Throughout American history, such policies have been based on the assumption that the homeless are lazy and irresponsible—a deviant group, perhaps incorrigible, but in any case outside the boundaries of mainstream society. There is much evidence, however, that these views are fundamentally biased. Negative stereotypes about the homeless have often functioned to justify persistent class or racial inequalities in American society. In reality, the homeless have always . . .

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