THERE is perhaps no more gnawing social problem in the United States today than the growing number of homeless people. On the one hand, there is the disposition, especially during the winter season, to be charitable to the homeless; on the other hand, there is the antithetical feeling that charity does nothing to solve the problem. In early America, the primary responsibility for the homeless fell on the family. Once that entity had undergone dispersion as a result of mobility across colonial or state boundaries, local government established poorhouses. But for individuals who chose not to be institutionalized, the only real alternative was to keep moving, occasionally by adopting a traveling trade that gave the imprimatur of legitimacy in a work-oriented society.
Yet too often the wandering, rootless American became associated with chicanery, and the traveling salesman became an opprobrious term. For the individual uninterested in plying a trade, choosing instead to live a life of catch-as-catch-can and avoiding incarceration for vagrancy, the stigma was just as great. And few groups offered helping hands.
By the early 1900s, reformers did little for the homeless, concentrating instead on relieving poverty stemming from such causes as industrial accidents. To be sure, there was concern for homeless youngsters living off city streets. In fact, Horatio Alger's 106 books took aim at this problem, with Alger convinced that inculcation of work attitudes was possible only at an early age, a view confirmed by the Civilian Conservation Corps established in the Great Depression.
Although pejorative terms such as hobo, tramp, and bum were cast on the adult homeless, the affected individuals largely accepted their outcast status. Hard times exacerbated their plight and added to their numbers, but did not raise their status as proper objects of public policy.
What has changed most in the United States in recent decades is that the homeless appear to span a wider demographic segment than they did traditionally, and their invisible status has given way to some public acknowledgment, largely as a result of political and legal organization on the part of their leaders.
Yet what has not changed is a clearer-cut definition of homelessness that merits formally legislated policy and its application.
For example, does homelessness by individual choice or by release from public facilities (such as mental institutions) or by familial neglect merit public policy? And if so, under what guidelines?
The nation's first major welfare law, the Social Security Act of 1935, began the nation's tortuous but necessary path of defining eligibility for matters such as unemployment compensation and old-age pensions.
The United States would do well to clarify public assistance for the homeless, rather than leaving the solution to the harsh precedents of history or to the generosity of individual Americans manifested mostly at Christmastime.
Thomas V. DiBacco is a historian at the American University.