In 1789 a charming five year old chimney sweep toiled through tough days in the bustling streets embodying the spirit of a spirited eighteenth century street urchin
Licensed via Adobe Stock
Fix Homelessness How to rebuild human lives

Caring for Orphans in New York City


Two columns ago I mentioned Charles Brace’s concern about high rents in New York City. Brace, a graduate of Yale and Union Seminary, got to know many poor people intimately as a minister among them in the 1850s. He became a critic of those who could work but instead relied on charitable organizations:

“They pass from one to the other; knowing exactly their conditions of assistance and meeting their requirements, and live thus by a sort of science of alms.”

When Brace founded the New York Children’s Aid Society in 1853, he began by setting up religious meetings aimed at orphaned or abandoned boys from 10 to 18 who slept in alleys. Some were accomplished thieves. Others worked at selling newspapers or running errands. Standard preaching did not excite them. Brace frankly described the boys’ reaction when “a pious and somewhat sentimental Sunday-school brother [delivered a] vague and declamatory religious exhortation . . . the words “Gas! gas!” [were] whispered with infinite contempt from one hard-faced young disciple to another.”

Brace, while arguing that no permanent reform of individual or society could succeed apart from religion, also saw the inadequacy of giving “tracts to a vagrant, who cannot earn his support without thieving.” Brace then tried direct material distribution to homeless children, but ran into problems. He wrote:

“If you put a comfortable coat on the first idle and ragged lad who applies, you will have fifty half-clad lads, many of whom possess hidden away a comfortable outfit, leaving their business next day to get jackets for nothing.”

From then on Brace argued that poverty-fighters had to stifle their “first impulse,” which was to offer immediate material help. Nor, he argued, was institutionalization the answer, even when material comforts were provided. “Asylum-life is not the best training for outcast children in preparing them for practical life,” he wrote. “The child, most of all, needs individual care and sympathy. In an Asylum, he is ‘Letter B, of Class B,’ or ‘No. 2, of Cell 426.'”

After first emphasizing the spiritual and then the material, Brace tried to merge the two: “Material Reform and Spiritual Reform, they must go on and mutually help one another.” His short-run plan was to set up lodging houses for homeless children that would provide not only shelter but classes in reading and industrial arts, along with Bible lessons. He soon had six lodging houses running and serving thousands of children.

Brace designed house rules to “discourage pauperism” and to show the rewards of honest work. Instead of handing out clothes, Brace preferred to “give the garments as rewards for good conduct, punctuality, and industry.” Once they came to know the children, housekeepers who saw cases of dire want could relieve them with less likelihood of deception and without harm to the character-building process.

Newspapers praised the lodging-house movement and attributed to it a decrease in arrests of children for vagrancy and petty larceny. Brace, though, never saw lodging houses as long-term solutions. He believed children could do much better by moving out of crowded Manhattan and into families in the countryside where a father and a mother could give personal attention.

I’ll write next week about the huge “orphan train” program Brace set up, which over the decades moved tens of thousands of homeless children west. Here, I’ll note how some officials offered close-by alternatives. In Boston, for example, Chaplain Rufus R. Cook of the Suffolk County Jail interviewed boys living on the street through petty thievery. If they expressed a desire to reform, he gained their release on probation and sent them to a farm in West Newton (about ten miles from Boston), where they received several months of training. If their conduct was good, he sent them to family farms throughout New England, but not further west.

The farmers were responsible for schooling, clothing, and feeding the boys, who could learn a trade while seeing life in an intact family. A Massachusetts Board of Charities study in 1869 showed that 80% of the 400 boys placed by Cook were doing well. Another study showed that 20 of 95 boys placed had run back to their old urban haunts — but that meant 75 were still leading changed lives on the farm. The system was far from perfect, but the accounts I read in the stacks of the Library of Congress showed it was good.

Marvin Olasky

Senior Fellow, Center for Science and Culture
Marvin Olasky is a Senior Fellow with Discovery Institute and its Center for Science and Culture. He taught at The University of Texas at Austin from 1983 to 2008 and edited WORLD magazine from 1992 through 2021. He is the author of 28 books including Fighting for Liberty and Virtue and The Tragedy of American Compassion.