Homelessness: A Historical Perspective on Modern Legislation

This Note will demonstrate how current legislative responses to homelessness are bound and crippled by the social reform theories of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Before legislators can devise more efficient remedies to tackle current problems, they must identify and transcend earlier, ineffective thinking. This requires viewing the homelessness problem· in historical perspective. Specifically, legislatures must (1) examine the origins of the legal system’s underlying conceptions about homelessness, (2) understand how these conceptions undermined earlier legislation designed to deal with the crisis, and (3) isolate, and escape, the modem manifestations of these conceptions.

This Note examines the early twentieth century, a period when conceptions about homelessness first emerged and congealed. During that period these conceptions existed at the surface and were readily visible. Such an examination provides the detailed familiarity with these conceptions necessary to identify their modem counterparts.

This Note focuses on homelessness in one city: New York. Part I describes homelessness and housing conditions in tum-of-the-century New York. Part II details the legislative response to these early problems. Part II first chronicles the calls for reform and the crystallization of views about the causes of homelessness. It focuses on three of these views: the tendency to see homelessness exclusively in its most visible manifestation – sanitation; the desire to treat homelessness in a vacuum; and the view that any housing relief is a privilege which recipients should gratefully accept without complaint or requests for more. This Part then describes the most relevant legislation passed during the period. Part III examines the effectiveness of this legislation and the ways in which the legal system’s underlying conceptions about homelessness eroded the legislation’s impact. Part IV highlights examples of earlier thinking in contemporary legislation and administrative policy, and thus demonstrates the continued existence and detrimental impact of earlier strains of thought.