History of Homelessness

By Don MacGillivray

Homelessness in Portland was generally unseen until the 1980s when it was exposed by various economic and social changes. These included a lack of growth in real earnings for those with moderate incomes; a growing scarcity of affordable housing; and the closing of institutions that had long served the mentally ill. 

Homelessness is a misfortune for the city, but especially for the homeless themselves and a symptom of many problematic conditions.

In early England vagrants were penalized through their Poor Laws, and could be whipped, put in the stocks, branded with a V, imprisoned and/or transported to the colonies.

In American history, homeless people were mentioned as early as 1640. After the American Revolution, many soldiers were penniless and homeless due the severe post war depression. At that time, fewer than seven percent of Americans lived in cities before the 1820s.

Homelessness became a national issue in the 1870s and was facilitated by the construction of the national railroad system, which increased urbanization, industrialization and travel. This led to a greater mobility of laborers, although it also led to the emergence of drifters “riding the rails.”

The industrial revolution of the 19th century changed the dynamics of being without a home. Laborers had to work long hours for a meager living with no job security. In America, immigrants without jobs filled New York and other East Coast cities only to live in extreme poverty, many without housing.

The Great Depression of the 1930s was a time of extreme displacement and homelessness. Living in shacks and shanty towns was an accepted practice in towns across the country. The majority of the homeless population then were white and over the age of 45. 

The federal government created new programs to address the causes of the depression, but the economy was slow to respond. It wasn’t until World War II that full employment was achieved. After the war there was a housing shortage and unemployment that ended with the economic boom of the 1950s.

The inflation of the late 1970s and the recession of the early 1980s contributed to the causes of homelessness in many large cities, including Portland. 

Serious causes of homelessness were the HIV-AIDS epidemic and the reduction of state hospital patients that dropped by 75 percent. Psychiatric patients were released from public hospitals and their failure to self-medicate left them living on the street.

The Stewart B. McKinney Homeless Assistance Act was created in 1977, along with the US Interagency Council on Homelessness, but neither was adequately funded to meet the growing need. The brunt of the homeless problem was left for the local communities to solve.

In Portland, people living on the street did not become commonplace until the mid-1980s. Before then a number of rundown buildings in the Old Town area had upper floors used for inexpensive lodging and known as flophouses. 

The indigent slept in large rooms full of double bunk beds where a cot was available for 25 cents a night. Due to building code restrictions, the upper floors of these buildings could not be used commercially.

Baloney Joe’s became a popular shelter and was operated by the Burnside Community Council. This was when Central City Concern (1979), Transition Projects (1969) and the St. Francis Dining Hall (1978) emerged to provide homeless services. 

Mayor Bud Clark’s 12 Point Plan made significant headway in addressing the homeless problem in 1986 and became a milestone in these efforts.

Then, in 2000, a group of 75 homeless folks were forced to move from place to place around the downtown area. They organized into Dignity Village and were finally allowed a degree of permanency at Sunderland Yard, seven miles from downtown. 

It has survived to become an internationally known model for alternative living and local leaders formed a commission to study homeless issues resulting in The 10-Year Plan to End Homelessness.

By 2008, 1.5 million people or about 0.5 percent of the US population, stayed in an emergency shelter or a transitional housing facility. Of these, approximately 44 percent were employed.

Homelessness has remained a problem that has defied solid solutions and is now managed locally by the City County Joint Office of Homeless Services with increased funding. 

While they have successfully addressed many issues, the problem of chronic homelessness has yet to be resolved and poverty, the housing crisis, unemployment and other factors remain.

12 projects, totaling over 1,420 units of affordable housing are either open or under construction in Portland and another 3,100 are in development due in large part to housing bonds supported by the public.

After many years, the US government will provide additional funding to address the homeless crisis. Money from the $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief funding will target homelessness through the American Rescue Plan. 

There will be $5 billion for the development of affordable housing and other services. Another $5 billion will be made available for emergency housing vouchers. 

The money will be distributed through the Department of Housing and Urban Development to communities impacted the most by homelessness and they will be able to determine the use of these resources.

History of Homelessness

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