Homelessness in America first appeared in the early 1600s with the beginning of
immigration, which mainly consisted of poor people looking for a job and a place to
settle. Between 1870 and 1924 millions of immigrants were coming to U.S. and
cramming tenement houses. Those of them who were extremely poor and could not
afford their living expenses, finally found themselves on the streets. The Great
Depression of the 1930s, which brought unstableness and massive unemployment,
increased homeless population drastically (Sweeney 13-17).
The history of homelessness in New York City can be traced back to the late 1970s.
At that time there was sufficient housing in New York for those people with law incomes.
In the mid-1970s, however, New York City began to experience serious economic
problems and came very close to declaring bankruptcy. This was symbolized by the
famous newspaper headline: "Ford to city: Drop Dead." "...in the late 1970s early signs
of a growing affordable housing shortage could be seen in the rapidly growing number of
homeless men and women sleeping on the streets, in parks, and in transportation
terminals" (Markee 1). This was made worse by the fuel crisis a few years later, as well
as a national recession in the early 1980s, and resulted in very high costs for building
owners. Many middle class people and companies began to leave New York as crime
increased. To try to keep the middle class, New York City created a real estate tax
abatement program known as J-51 program, which converted thousands of rental units
into co-operative apartments. Unfortunately, many of these converted units were
single-room-occupancy (SRO) hotels in different boroughs of the city that were used by
law-income citizens. Many of the SRO buildings were destroyed or converted into
condominiums. "Between 1972 and 1982, largely through this conversion process, New
York City saw the loss of 100,000 SRO units" (Haaga 3). The SRO tenants, who were
people living on fixed incomes, social security or public assistance, became part of
At the same time, many building owners in New York were abandoning their
buildings or even setting fire to them for the insurance money because they were too
expensive to operate. This also reduced the amount of law-income housing in New York.
In addition, when President Reagan came into office in the 1980s, the situation has gotten
worse. He began to cut federal funds not only from law-income programs such as
Medicaid, food stamps and welfare programs, but also from law-income housing program
such as Section 8 Rent Subsidy Program, which had long provided rent subsidies for law-
income housing (Sweeney 68-69). "When the federal government withdrew from
Section 8 program, private developers walked away from law-income housing"(Haaga 3).
As if all that was not bad enough, it was around this time that New York State began to
release thousands of patients from mental...