Throughout our country’s history, there have been people who suffered from homelessness – but there has not always been the same chronic and extensive homelessness we now face. Over the years homeless individuals have been referred to by a variety of different names. During the Revolutionary War homeless individuals were referred to the “itinerate poor,” a result of a society in need of transient agricultural workers, while around the Great Depression words like “tramp” or “bum” came into use.
Prior to the 1970s homelessness rose and fell with the economic state of the country. Starting in the 1970s policy’s shifted and a sharp and permeant rise in homelessness occurred. Previously, when there was a downturn in the economy the number of the homeless would increase, but this would be fixed when the economy returned to normal. The largest number of homeless up until that point occurred during the Great Depression, but with the help of the New Deal policies homelessness returned to its previous level.
Started in the 1970s, however, a trend of chronic homelessness began to present itself as well as different types of individuals suffering from homelessness—women, families, blue
“Anti-poverty” efforts lead to homeless site dismantlement plans and the destruction of single-room occupancy facilities in urban downtowns. Churches begin to take on the burden of creating shelters, and local coalitions develop. Bank deregulation and the start of the farm crisis widen the gap between rich and poor.
Additionally, mental health consumers began to be deinstitutionalized without providing adequate housing and health care resources for community reintegration. As a result, many people with mental illnesses started to end up homeless or in jail.
Fast forward nearly 40 years and policy has continued to ensure economic inequality at staggering levels. Keep a look out next week for a closer look at the history of homelessness in the U.S. after 1980.
The National Coalition for the Homeless has opened its first field office in our 40 year history in Cleveland Ohio. To celebrate this we are hosting a forum at our new offices in Cleveland entitled “Racial Equity Issues within the Homeless Sector and Possible Solutions”. The forum is being conducted by our Executive Director, Donald Whitehead and will focus on racial equity issues in the homeless sector and policies that result in segregated housing in the United States. We are also working on partnering with local social service providers who have a history of working on overcoming discriminatory practices. The racial equity forum is slated for November 23 at 1 p.m. and is scheduled to last until 4 p.m. at 1400 East 105th Street at the CleWorx space down the street from the VA in University Circle. Media are invited at 12:30 p.m. to talk to Donald Whitehead about the opening of the field office.
NCH has selected Cleveland as our first field site because of its status among the top 5 poorest cities in America for the past 20 years, but also some of the innovative approaches to homelessness locally. The local Coalition, NEOCH, has done a tremendous job responding to the pandemic and bolstered its outreach efforts reducing the numbers sleeping outside. Cleveland advocates have used the legal system to win some historic victories with national implications in the area of voting, panhandling and preventing sweeps. NCH hired the former director of the local homeless coalition, Brian Davis, to staff the field office in 2021. NCH will focus on grassroots organizing and civil rights protections while constructing an office to build relationships with other homeless led groups in the Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, Illinois, Kentucky and western Pennsylvania.
Donald has previous experience with homelessness and was the director of Cincinnati Homeless Coalition as well as running permanent supportive housing shelters and outreach programs in Baltimore Maryland, Alexandria Virginia, Washington DC, Orlando Florida and Prince George’s County Maryland. He is a national expert on racial inequity with regard to housing and homelessness. He sits on a number of advisory boards at the Department of Housing and Urban Development over re-segregation issues and violations of the Fair Housing Act. He introduced the Bring America Home Now campaign earlier this year to promote public policy that actually ends homelessness in America quickly by proposing legislation in the areas of housing, civil rights, healthcare, education, income justice, and racial equity.
I was a part of a small group of thirteen- and fourteen-year-olds who often played a lively game of tag football in the Burnet Avenue U.S Post office parking lot in Cincinnati, Ohio.
I had just scored a long touchdown. As I was finishing my touchdown celebration, I noticed a University of Cincinnati Police cruiser drive by. I saw the woman in the back pointing at some of the people in the parking lot. Minutes later, the parking lot was swamped with police cars. Campus police and Cincinnati officers jumped out in mass with guns drawn, and suddenly we were ordered against the vehicles, and guns were pointed at our heads. We were confused and terrified about what was happening what we had done other than play football on the lot for several hours. Why was there so much anger coming from the police officers? Why did they have their guns drawn?
I can still hear my best friend say, “let’s run for it.” I sometimes wonder what might have happened if we had taken his advice. We know from recent history that running would have been a mistake, potentially a fatal mistake. Luckily one of my brothers who wasn’t placed against the car had gone to get our parents. Our houses were less than a hundred yards away.
The white woman in the police car pointing had been robbed and assaulted by a group of black boys, and we fit the description. To her credit, after further inspection, the woman realized that none of our group was involved. The tension faded; however, the damage was done. We were good kids; we went to church every Sunday and sang in the Church Choir; none of us had ever been in trouble.
This was our first contact with law enforcement ever.
We did not commit the robbery; in fact, it was us that got robbed that day. We were robbed of innocence, robbed of trust in those that protect and serve—robbed of our belief in a colorblind world. This is not a unique scenario; it is a lot more common than many would believe.
No child should have to learn such painful lessons with a gun pointed at their head.
That day was the first of many pen pricks of racism that I experienced and still experience to this day.
The incident also taught me not to be silent in the face of discrimination. Our silence is negligence; we cannot see or experience injustice without protest or at the very least identify it. Our minor protest resulted in season-tickets-for-life to the University of Cincinnati football games.
The other lesson learned for me was the need to understand how and why I fit the description. Why am I suspicious without provocation? Why is my excellence somehow seen as out of the ordinary or achieved through dishonesty or criminality? I immediately wanted to understand history, my history, our collective history. I became a Dr. Martin Luther King fan; unfortunately, this was the only historical figure fully accessible in my post-secondary education.
I became my own historian, and the more I have learned over the years, the more I have wanted to know.
I have been completely horrified by the middle passage, chattel slavery, black codes, and Jim Crow practices.
I have also been so proud and grateful to my ancestors. I am so respectful of their incredible resilience and their ability to survive the unthinkable horrors they endured.
As my teams and I work to reintroduce the world to our full history, we often encounter the voices of the apathetic or the discouraged. The level of internalized racism is surprisingly significant. I find myself troubled by the thought that nothing will change from some in the community.
To not believe in change is disrespectful to the many changemakers who have given their lives. Things have changed in many ways, most notably, the end of chattel slavery and the opportunity to gain civil rights have been hard-fought and slow and painful.
In many ways, it does appear that we are going in the wrong direction. From Charlottesville to massive voter depression efforts, it’s easy to be discouraged. It’s easy to ignore the senate election in Georgia or the election of Barack Obama when the Supreme court weakens the civil rights amendment. Watching angry crowds protest students having the ability to learn the unfiltered history of the United States by misrepresenting every attempt as the misunderstood Critical Race Theory, it’s easy to overlook that the Secretary of Defense is a dark-skinned black man.
Our racial reconciliation is recent in history; the first African Americans landed on the continent’s shores in 1619. Brown versus Board of Education was passed in 1954. For 300 years, we survived on a steady diet of resilience, pride, and hope; we must never abandon those ideals.
Those discouraged by the current state of our country learn from the setbacks and rejoice about the progress and never stop believing in change. Every living breathing African Americans is a product of success. We are descendants of unfathomable resilience. Resilience from the 400 years of all of the things I mentioned earlier and resilience from the pen pricks of racism today and those yet to come. The great Booker T. Washington said “Success should not be judged by ones station in life but the obstacles they had to overcome to get there.”