New Homeless and Old: Community and the Skid Row Hotel

New Homeless and Old: Community and the Skid Row Hotel

New Homeless and Old: Community and the Skid Row Hotel

New Homeless and Old: Community and the Skid Row Hotel


Descriptions of the homeless in the 1980s usually depict vulnerable people enduring undeserved deprivation. Research studies and policy reports contrast the demographic characteristics of the "new" homeless with the "old" homeless on Skid Row, using human interest stories to spotlight the special vulnerabilities that make today's homeless individuals deserving subjects for our sympathy and care.

This perception of the homeless as a new social problem gained popularity among reporters and analysts documenting the effects of the 1981-82 economic recession. The human interest stories they told were not only descriptive accounts of personal suffering but included speculations about the responsibility of others. In other words, homelessness was presented not as an individual problem with bad social consequences, but as a social problem that overwhelms individuals.

The story of Jerry Peterson, for example, blames his homeless condition on the effects of economic dislocation and unfair competition rather than flaws in moral character. Jerry Peterson did not reject the work ethic; he was simply unsuccessful in a competitive world.

Seven years ago, Peterson owned a carpet cleaning business and had just bought a house in Streamwood [a Chicago suburb] for $54,900. He started cleaning carpets in 1975 to supplement his income as a police officer in Rolling Meadows, a job he worked for nearly ten years after leaving the U.S. Army in the mid 1960s. When business boomed, he quit the police force and started Tri-R-Carpet, a company that worked for apartment complexes and other large customers.

"We had more business than we could handle," he recalls. "I was making about $30,000. Then a couple of big companies moved in and wiped us out."

Peterson found himself too old to return to the police force, so he took on part-time work as a private security officer that turned into full-time work when Tri-R-Carpet went under in 1978. Guarding shopping malls, hospitals and race tracks is unskilled labor that doesn't pay much, so that even when he was able to fit two full-time positions into his schedule, he still fell farther and farther behind on mortgage and utility payments and other bills he, his wife and four children were generating.

The family lost their house in 1981 and began to live a nomadic, Dickensian existence in the northwest suburbs, frequently cooking on camping stoves when the gas was turned off and seldom having a telephone. They filed . . .

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