Homeless: How did we get here?

But, for me, I also wanted to understand the history of how something as complex as homelessness gained so much traction in our city in such a short time.  There are organizations like Save Austin Now, and you can see how they are attempting to curb the problem of homelessness in our city, but the rest of this article has to do with the history of homelessness. 

People without stable living situations have appeared in waves throughout American history. During the Revolutionary War, it was itinerant workers, the “wandering poor” of an agricultural society reliant on worker mobility.

Before the Civil War, it was unemployed mill workers, dockworkers, and miners, displaced by business cycles or changes in society caused by the introduction of a rail line or telegraph station.

After the Civil War, when a credit-fueled railroad boom went bust, breaking banks and killing jobs — the “Panic of 1873,” capitalism’s first major worldwide economic downturn, known as the “Great Depression” until the bigger Great Depression in the 1930s — it was freed slaves and veterans, whose wartime habits of foraging (or sometimes pillaging) the countryside for food and provisions introduced the words “tramp” and “bum” to the lexicon.

Almost always, it was temporary. As soon as the economy recovered, homeless people recovered, too. They went back inside and resumed normal lives. In the meantime, there was a safety net.

Today there are over 500,000 homeless people in the United States, and the state of California having just over 150,000. 

Now there are 3 primary reasons why people will encounter homelessness; 1.  Mental health.  2.  Lack of job opportunity.  3.  Lack of affordable living. 

Personally, I feel like #2 and #3 are not easy to solve, but a little more concrete than #1, so I spend most of my time trying to learn about the influence of mental health on homelessness and found that de institutionalizing of mental health facilities in the United States has had a huge influence.  Here’s a brief history:

  • 1833 Worcester State Hospital opens in Massachusetts as the first mental hospital fully supported by state funds.
  • 1860 Twenty-eight of the 33 existing U.S. states have state psychiatric hospitals.
  • 1946 Life Magazine publishes photos depicting the horrors inside the hospitals.  Can’t you imagine? 
  • 1955 The number of patients inside public mental hospitals nationwide peaks at 560,000.
  • 1963 John F Kennedy pursued the Community Mental Health Act, but Kennedy’s assassination in 1963 completely set this pursuit apart from being accomplished.  Here Kennedy is quoted as saying, “I am proposing a new approach to mental illness and to mental retardation. This approach is designed, in large measure, to use Federal resources to stimulate State, local and private action. When carried out, reliance on the cold mercy of custodial isolation will be supplanted by the open warmth of community concern and capability. Emphasis on prevention, treatment and rehabilitation will be substituted for a desultory interest in confining patients in an institution to wither away.” 
  • 1965 The U.S. Congress establishes Medicaid and Medicare. Mentally disabled people living in the community are eligible for benefits but those in psychiatric hospitals are excluded.
  • 1967 Ronald Reagan is elected governor of California. At this point, the number of patients in state hospitals had fallen to 22,000, and the Reagan administration uses the decline as a reason to make cuts to the Department of Mental Hygiene. They cut 2,600 jobs and 10 percent of the budget despite reports showing that hospitals were already below recommended staffing levels.
  • 1967 Reagan signs the Lanterman-Petris-Short Act and ends the practice of institutionalizing patients against their will, or for indefinite amounts of time. This law is regarded by some as a “patient’s bill of rights”.  Sadly, the care outside state hospitals was inadequate. The year after the law goes into effect, a study shows the number of mentally ill people entering San Mateo’s criminal justice system doubles.

The 1960’s created a critical moment for us in the history of homelessness, because simply leaving people in a mental health facility was proving to create unsafe contexts for those who were most vulnerable, but at the same time those who are most vulnerable are in need of structure, care, and oversight, and many times end up doing more harm to themselves than good. 

  • 1980 President Jimmy Carter signs the Mental Health Systems Act to improve on Kennedy’s dream.   The commission’s work led to the formulation of the influential National Plan for the Chronically Mentally Ill, but a system of care and treatment for persons with serious mental illnesses was never created. 
  • 1981 President Reagan repeals Carter’s legislation with the Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act. This pushes the responsibility of mentally ill patients back to the states. The legislation creates block grants for the states, but federal spending on mental illness declines.

Today the need for the homeless community is higher than it has ever been, and instead of a centralized effort to serve these people we see a patched work effort by multiple groups that are doing the best they can to make a difference. 

I am not sure what this means for me practically, but on a personal level I am continuing to search out how I might personally be able to play a positive role in ending or at least reducing homelessness in Austin, the United States and the world.