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The Great Eliminator: How Ronald Reagan Made Homelessness Permanent 

Wednesday, Jun 29 2016
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At Christmastime 1982, fed-up religious leaders called a press conference.

The Rev. Paul Moore, New York City's Episcopal bishop, was furious. Standing next to Methodist and Catholic bishops, a rabbi and a Muslim, Moore laid into the source of his ire: President Ronald Reagan.

At the time, there were 36,000 homeless people on New York's streets, a scene repeated in cities across the country, including San Francisco. But this new wave of needy was different. Instead of the single men with drinking problems who'd populated the hotels and alleys of South of Market after World War II, there were factory and office workers who had lost their jobs in the recent global recession slumped in doorways next to Vietnam War veterans. There were women, children, families.

During a speech at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in 1981, his first year in office, the new president — who would use the recession as an excuse to cut taxes and slash government spending to spark growth, the infamous "Reaganomics" — presented a solution to homelessness, an issue seen at the time as a temporary problem that would soon cycle itself away, just as it had several times before.

In classic small-government fashion, Reagan's fix did not involve government. If only "every church and synagogue would take in 10 welfare families" each, the president said, the problem could be weathered until it passed. It was a truly conservative approach, reminiscent of how homelessness was addressed in the 19th century.

And it was "absolute balderdash," said the Rev. Moore, according to a Dec. 25, 1982 United Press International wire story picked up by the San Francisco Chronicle. The responsibility for dealing with homelessness wasn't the church's — it was the state's, the bishop said, just as it had been since the Great Depression.

"Housing the homeless and feeding the hungry is the responsibility of the public sector," he said. "They should have a permanent policy whereby homeless persons would have a place to live."

People like then-New York City Mayor Ed Koch needed to stand up to people like Reagan and demand more help. After all, cities received the bulk of the money used for social programs like housing and welfare from the federal government.

"Don't shirk your responsibility," said Moore, addressing both the president and mayor.

Faced with a glut of poor people huddled on the streets with nowhere to live and nowhere to go — many of them war veterans, others unemployed workers struggling to adapt to a changing labor market that no longer needed their skills — city leaders in Chicago decided to take action.

They would keep a "large building heated through the night to house the homeless poor," according to headlines printed in newspapers across the country, including the San Francisco Chronicle, whose readers were also living in one of the great waves of homelessness in American history.

That was in 1869.

To better understand why people are experiencing homelessness today and why solutions have been so hard to come by, it's worthwhile to look at what put them there — and why other periods of homelessness in America eventually ended.

Tramps, vagabonds, hobos: whatever you call them, people without stable living situations have appeared in waves several times in 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.

During the Great Depression, with unemployment at 25 percent and large swaths of agricultural land turned to literal dust by a combination of drought and over-farming, as many as 5 percent of Americans were homeless.

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.

For colonial Americans living under English tradition, the community or local parish was responsible for poor residents. In the 19th century, religious and other charitable organizations offered almshouses where lodging and food were available in return for work. During the Great Depression, with one-quarter of cities offering no homeless services, responsibility shifted to the federal government, which provided job training, education, food, and housing.

Thirty-six years after the Rev. Moore called out President Reagan at Christmastime in 1982, there are now more than 60,000 homeless people in New York City.

That's more per capita than any other city in America except San Francisco, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

By the time Reagan took office, HUD was the main federal agency that offered housing and other programs aimed at helping poor and working-class people.

And beginning under Reagan but continuing with the next three presidents, HUD would see its funding reduced. By the time George W. Bush took office, it had been slashed almost 60 percent.

Reagan — who famously could not recognize Samuel Pierce, his own HUD secretary, and failed to recognize and halt a scandal in which HUD money was funneled to Republican consultants rather than building and repairing low-income-housing — didn't shirk his responsibility.

He abdicated it, a wholesale abandonment that signaled the near-end of the federal government's role in managing homelessness and housing policies, a legacy carried on by every American president since.

"Homelessness has been a persistent and enduring feature in American history," wrote retired HUD researcher Walter Leginski in 2007. "While there have been temporary lulls, from colonial times forward there has been no period of American history free of homelessness."


About The Author

Chris Roberts

Chris Roberts has spent most of his adult life working in San Francisco news media, which is to say he's still a teenager in Middle American years. He has covered marijuana, drug policy, and politics for SF Weekly since 2009.

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