"The housing industry trades on the knowledge that no western country can politically afford to permit its citizens to sleep in the street."
Anthony Jackson, A Place Called Home, 1976
No doubt every age has its roster of "unbreakable" rules that some future era proves to be no such thing. When it comes to attitudes toward the poor in the United States, however, the cycle appears to be quickening. Jackson's study of low-cost housing in Manhattan is, after all, less than twenty years old but already it seems hopelessly dated, even quaint. The same applies to the "decent provision for the poor" that Samuel Johnson once put forth as the true measure of a civilized society. Five centuries of poor relief are enough to make one skeptical of the idea that any capitalist society (even one aspiring to the status of "civilized") has ever seriously followed that dictum. 1 Still, the moral legitimacy and force of the claim remain undeniable. Why else would the U.S. delegation have felt compelled to insist that footage of American homelessness be omitted from a 1987 United Nations film commissioned as part of the International Year of Shelter for the Homeless? The Reagan administration's objection? The film neglected to mention the distinctive "individual rights element" of homelessness in this country ( New York Times 1986).
But embarrassment at our failure to keep the indigent off the streets at night is not just political posturing. Something much deeper is at stake, as a moment's consideration of the misery not seen will attest. Official relief aside, a vast make- shift array of "shadow shelter"--stemming for the most part from the claims of kinship and friendship--has traditionally made (and continues to make) the difference between a place on the street and a berth among familiar faces for most people on the margins. That being so, the scale of the visible homelessness apparent today is even more remarkable and the need for credible accounts of what went wrong more pressing. Violating core moral codes is customarily viewed as