why are so many people who are homeless

The Late 1970s: Modern Homelessness Emerges

While homelessness is certainly not a new phenomenon in the United States or in New York City, where it dates back to at least the colonial era, there is no question that modern homelessness, which began in the late 1970s, is a unique historical occurrence. Indeed, one must go back to the Great Depression of the 1930s to find another period in New York history when homelessness was such a routine, persistent, visible feature of urban life, and when it affected such a wide swath of the city’s population.

Roots of Modern Homelessness in New York City: Deinstitutionalization and the Decline of Single-Room Housing

Why did so many homeless adults, particularly people living with mental illness, appear in such vast numbers on the streets of New York City in the late 1970s? Actually, the roots of modern homelessness can be traced back to dramatic changes in New York City’s housing stock, particularly cheap housing for the poor, as well as mental health policies adopted by the State government as far back as the 1950s.

The most significant single change in New York City’s housing stock during the emergence of modern homelessness was the extraordinary reduction in the number of single-room housing units. Since the early part of the century, single-room housing — which includes single-room occupancy (SRO) units and residential hotels, typically with shared kitchen and bathroom facilities — had played an essential role in providing low-cost housing for poor single adults, childless couples, and even families (until regulatory enforcement in the early 1960s prohibited occupancy by families). In the decades following World War II single-room housing continued to be a vital and relatively plentiful source of cheap housing in New York City. In 1960, by one measure, there were approximately 129,000 single-room housing units citywide. By the 1970s, single-room housing had become the “housing of last resort” for poor single adults, many of whom were disabled, elderly, addicts, or ex-inmates.

Single-room housing was also a vital resource for discharged patients of New York State psychiatric centers and hospitals. In the 1950s the State began to adopt a policy of “deinstitutionalization” for thousands of patients of State facilities who were living with mental illness. The policy was adopted largely due to the development of psychotropic medications and new approaches to providing therapeutic treatment in the community instead of in institutional settings, but also because of the scandalous mistreatment of patients in some facilities.

Deinstitutionalization led to the discharge of tens of thousands of mentally ill individuals from upstate facilities to New York City communities. Between 1965 and 1979 alone, the number of resident patients in State psychiatric centers fell from 85,000 to 27,000 patients, a 68 percent decline. However, the State and local governments failed to invest the enormous savings garnered from hospital closings in community-based housing for people discharged from hospitals, and many deinstitutionalized individuals living with mental illness had no alternative but to move into single-room housing.

The single-room housing stock became increasingly regulated, and in 1955 changes in housing codes essentially prohibited the conversion or construction of new single-room housing; additional provisions of the zoning code made conversion practically impossible. Therefore, after 1955 the number of single-room units had essentially reached a maximum limit, and erosion of this housing stock was inevitable.

In the 1970s the decline of the single-room housing stock accelerated at a tremendous rate due to conversion and demolition. By one measure, the number of single-room units fell from approximately 129,000 in 1960 to just 25,000 in 1978. This erosion was especially rapid in the late 1970s. A 1979 study of “lower-priced hotels” (which included SRO units, residential hotels, and other facilities such as YMCAs) by the City found that the number of permanent residents had fallen from 35,000 to 23,000 between 1975 and 1979, a precipitous decline over a brief period.

Changes in property tax policy played a decisive role in the loss of the single-room housing stock in the late 1970s. In 1975 the City amended a property tax abatement program — which had been created two decades earlier to encourage developers to renovate and upgrade deteriorating buildings, such as warehouses, into residential buildings — to include SROs. Because most SRO buildings were located in areas that were gentrifying, in particular the Upper West Side, owners took advantage of the tax amendment to convert single-room housing to higher-cost rental housing, cooperatives, or condominiums. By the early 1980s, the City was forced to reduce the tax abatement available for SRO conversions. Finally, in 1985, in response to the enormous loss of the SRO stock and the growing homeless population, the City established a temporary moratorium (eventually overturned by State courts) on all SRO conversions and later issued more restrictive procedures for the conversion of SRO housing. Nevertheless, most of New York City’s single-room housing stock had already been lost, and it continued to dwindle throughout the 1980s and 1990s.

There is evidence that the decline of single-room housing persisted through the 1990s. From 1991 to 1993 alone, according to one study, there was an 18 percent decrease in the number of single-room housing units in New York City. The largest reductions, as in earlier decades, were among units in commercial hotels and rooming houses, continuing the loss of this low-cost rental housing resource.

Modern Homelessness Emerges in the Late 1970s

The first sign of modern homelessness in New York City was the appearance of thousands of homeless men sleeping in parks, on sidewalks, in transportation terminals, and in other public spaces in the late 1970s. Although historically the city had seen pockets of street homelessness in the Bowery and other “skid row” districts, the sight of homeless adults — many of them men living with mental illness — bedding down on streets became more commonplace throughout the city by the end of the 1970s. At the same time, deaths and injuries among the street homeless also became commonplace. According to City officials, incidents of hypothermia and cold-related deaths and injuries among the homeless were “routine” in the early years of modern homelessness.

At that time there was no legal “right to shelter” for homeless New Yorkers. The City’s response to the growing crisis was woefully inadequate. There existed a rudimentary system of emergency shelters which were almost always filled to capacity, particularly in the winter, and thousands of homeless men seeking shelter were forced to turn to the streets. Among the early shelter facilities was Camp LaGuardia, a converted prison located 75 miles north of New York City in Orange County. Camp LaGuardia had been opened as a temporary residence for “vagrants” during the Great Depression and sheltered an average of 700 men per night by 1980. The most notorious of the early shelters was the cavernous Municipal Shelter on East Third Street on the Bowery, where conditions were deplorable and tuberculosis and other contagious diseases were commonplace. Indeed, due to the shortage of shelter beds, by the late 1970s as many as 250 men reportedly slept each night in squalid conditions on the floor of the Municipal Shelter’s infamous lobby, dubbed the “Big Room.”

The City’s welfare agency also provided vouchers to some homeless men (called “ticketmen”) to allow them to rent cubicles in Bowery lodging houses. As far back as the 1960s, the City had provided an average of 1,000 such vouchers per day, with the numbers exceeding 1,500 per day in the winter months. However, in the years before the system was phased out in 1977, lengths-of-stay grew longer and vacant rooms became much more difficult to find, in large part due to the demolition of many lodging houses or their conversion to higher-cost housing.

Securing the Right to Shelter for Homeless New Yorkers

With no right to shelter, thousands of homeless New Yorkers each year were forced to fend for themselves on the streets. In 1979 the founders of Coalition for the Homeless brought a class action lawsuit called Callahan v. Carey against the City and State arguing that a constitutional right to shelter existed in New York. In particular, the lawsuit pointed to Article XVII of the New York State Constitution, which declares that “the aid, care and support of the needy are public concerns and shall be provided by the state and by such of its subdivisions….” The lead plaintiff in the lawsuit, Robert Callahan, was a homeless Korean War veteran who had been sleeping on the street like many other men.

In December 1979, a New York State Supreme Court judge ruled in favor of the plaintiffs and ordered the City and State to provide shelter to all homeless men. And over the next two years the Coalition’s founders entered into negotiations with the City and State, culminating in the 1981 Callahan v. Carey consent decree that enshrined the legal right to shelter for homeless individuals in New York City.