Modern homelessness, as we know it today, began in the 1970’s. During the Reagan Administration, affordable housing dollars were cut but almost 75%, leading directly to poor working families experiencing homelessness at alarming rates. Folks began to organize in the 1980’s, this was when our organization was formed. At the same time, a group called the National Union of the Homeless (NUH) developed out of the first resident-run shelter in Philadelphia.
Read more about the NUH:
“In the late 1970s and early 1980s the United States economy underwent a series of changes that led to a sharp rise in homelessness. Homelessness was no longer characterized by down and out individuals living on skid rows. For the first time in US history, families were increasingly becoming homeless, and the shelter system was created to house them.
Out of this common experience of dislocation and dispossession grew a national organization of homeless people that mobilized thousands throughout the US in the 1980s and 1990s. At its height, the National Union of the Homeless (NUH) had over 20 local chapters and 15,000 members in cities across the US.
Most importantly, it implemented a model of organizing involving the poor and homeless thinking for themselves, speaking for themselves, fighting for themselves and producing from their ranks capable and creative leaders. This was contrary to the prevailing stereotypes and misconceptions about homelessness. Almost twenty years after the decline of the NUH, its history offers important lessons for building a movement to end poverty today, in the midst of continuing concentration of wealth among a few and expanding poverty for many.”
(Copied from The National Union of the Homeless: A Brief History, Published July 2011, https://homelessunion.wdfiles.com/local–files/curriculum/BriefHistoryPamphlet.pdf)
The NUH was active between 1985 and 1993. During this time, NUH mounted several campaigns, first aimed at overcoming stereotypes of who was homeless, then later focused on appropriating housing for its members. Their actions used slogans like “Homes and Jobs: Not Death in the Streets” and “Homeless Not Helpless.” They mounted civil disobedience like the Tompkins Square Tent City (detailed in Tent City Blues, an article in the Sept-Oct 1990 issue of Mother Jones), a national series of housing takeovers (watch in the documentary, The Takeover, from 1990), and the Union organized and participated in the Housing Now March along with the National Coalition for the Homeless and several others.
We encourage anyone reading this to learn more about where our collective work has come from by checking out the above links, and also visiting the Homeless Union History Project and the National Union of the Homeless Wikipideia page.
2020 Update: The Union is back!