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Fix Homelessness How to rebuild human lives

Helping the Manhattan Poor: A History


I concluded my Joplin series last week, so May is New York month on my part of Fix Homelessness. Much of what we hear in national media concerning homelessness originates in the salons of Manhattan, and if we want to understand why our policy savants sometimes go far off course, we should understand the history of New York City’s successes and failures.

That story begins two centuries ago with the rise of the Society for the Prevention of Pauperism (SPP). That last word is significant: the society’s founders declared that the problem was not poverty, a state in which hard-working people might find themselves. The problem was pauperism, in which people able to work had given up, losing their homes and unnecessarily relying on private charity or local governmental welfare.

The Society’s founders sought to be neither tightwads nor profligate: They planned “to divide the city into very small districts, and to appoint, from the members of the Society, two or three Visitors for each district, whose duty it shall be to become acquainted with the inhabitants.” The goal was to see who really needed help and who was, as we’d say today, gaming the system.

As I learned 35 years ago while hanging out in the stacks of the Library of Congress, the SPP failed for many reasons. One was a lack of volunteer social workers from those affluent enough to spend their time without pay. When a recession in the late 1830s increased the number of homeless, New Yorkers gave up the idea of what I’d call micro-welfare, assessing individual needs. They turned to a macro-welfare approach: Find the big cause, the big problem, and pass laws or create regulations to deal with it. (They hoped.)

Today, the main competitors for cause number one of homelessness are substance abuse, mental illness, and housing insufficiency. Two centuries ago, reformers targeted substance abuse and opened in 1829 the New York Temperance Society. One founder, Robert M. Hartley, hit the streets, visited distilleries, and debated their owners or managers concerning their role in furthering alcoholism. He went on to become executive secretary — today we’d say CEO — of the New York Association for Improving the Condition of the Poor (AICP) from the 1840s to the 1870s. He continued to connect drunkenness and destitution.

One example of Hartley’s work is his temperance pamphlet, “Way to Make the Poor Rich.” Hartley pointed out that 12 1/2 cents a day spent on drink amounted to $45.62 a year, which at that time was enough to buy three tons of coal, one load of wood, two barrels of flour, 200 pounds of corn meal, 200 pounds of pork, and eight bushels of potatoes. He said, “into a house thus supplied, hunger and cold could not enter.”

Sadly, the temptation to spend money on liquor and in brothels and gambling halls was great. Journalist Oliver Dyer calculated that if all of New York’s post-Civil War liquor shops (5,500), houses of prostitution (647, by his count), and other low-life establishments were placed for a night on a single street, it would reach from City Hall in lower Manhattan to White Plains thirty miles away, with a robbery every 165 yards, a murder every half mile, and thirty reporters offering sensational detail.

A second reformer, Charles Brace, said alcoholism was a concern but so was the cost of housing, part of which he said resulted from government mismanagement. Brace called for a “cheap and honest administration [that] would at once lower taxation and bring down rents. The enormous prices demanded for one or two small rooms in a tenement-house are a measure (in part) of the cost of our city government.” Lower taxes could also spur the construction of ‘Model Houses,’ tenements with good ventilation and a limit on crowding.

Brace proposed reducing the cost of housing by improving transportation so New Yorkers would not have to live within walking distance of their workplaces. Brace presciently called for “an underground railway with cheap workman’s trains” that would connect Manhattan with Westchester County, New Jersey, and Long Island. Those who could not afford lower Manhattan prices would not be rendered homeless: They could move to areas they could afford without giving up their jobs.

Who was right, Hartley or Brace? Both, I suspect. Substance abuse made people poor and sometimes homeless. Housing was expensive. The AICP said its task was “vast, complex, and difficult.” Poverty fighters had different emphases, but they tried to work together.

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.