Homelessness in Grand Rapids is a microcosm of what is happening at the federal level. In America, the impact of 1600s Puritan values still thrives. Many people hold on to the notion that one only needs to pull themselves up by their bootstraps and into the pursuit of the American dream. Those who can't "deserve" to be destitute, as they bring no added value to society.
What is homelessness, what are its causes, and who does it affect? Homelessness in Grand Rapids is a microcosm of what is happening at the federal level. The second part of a Rapid Growth series takes a look at the history of homelessness in the United States from the 1800s to the present day and gives some sobering statistics on how this national issue affects West Michigan here and now.
From the mid to late 1800s, the main causes of homelessness were: 1. Civil War Veterans -- suffering from PTSD and opiate addiction -- with no place to go; 2. Emerging racism and unequal access to jobs; 3. Unregulated capitalism, severe economic downturns, and unemployment near 40%; 4. Immigration; and 5. The expansion of the railroad, fueling a rise in train hoppers. (Source: A History of Homelessness in America, by Steve Carlson, Psy.D., Director of Supportive Housing, Spectrum Community Mental Health, Minneapolis, MN).
The Civil War era
During the Civil War, homelessness dipped significantly as men joined ranks by the hundreds of thousands to fight the war, but then spiked enormously when the war ended. Some Grand Rapids veterans found jobs at furniture factories. General Sherman promised "40 acres and a mule" to freed slaves, but in the end, less than 1% -- about 3,500 -- received their allotment. The African American population has yet to recover. "With very few African Americans able to gain land and assets to give to their children, there is now a homeownership gap where 27% more whites have homes than African Americans" (up from 23% in 1940). (Carlson)
Morphine -- first used during the Civil War -- enabled hundreds of thousands of veterans, many with amputated limbs, to survive. Opiate addiction followed, and from the 1870s to the 1890s, one could order morphine, heroin, and syringes from the Sears and Roebuck catalog. Rural housewives also became addicted trying to survive the monotony of isolation. With drug addiction came its criminalization. Cases of what is now called Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) produced wandering, lost souls, and the terms "tramp," "hobo," and "bum" were born out of this era. Source
Especially following the American Civil War, a large number of homeless men formed part of a counterculture known as "hobohemia" all over America. This phenomenon re-surged in the 1930s during and after the Great Depression. (Source: Todd Depasino, "Citizen Hobo: How a Century of Homeless Shaped America," Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003.)
The lumber industry
In the 1880s, Grand Rapids was a bustling commercial center fueled by the lumber industry. By 1890, GR was home to the nation's largest furniture companies. The high-paying and plentiful jobs attracted a large number of immigrants, including Dutch, German, Polish, and other northern Europeans. Grand Rapids grew from slightly more than 10,000 residents at the end of the Civil War to nearly 90,000 by 1900. Source
Not everyone prospered, however. A high number of children were made homeless as epidemics of cholera, diphtheria, typhus, and scarlet fever swept through West Michigan. Source
. Malnourished and very sick children begged in the streets of the city. Leading citizens organized to rescue them, and organizations like D.A. Blodgett and St. John's Home were created to help. Adults suffering from alcoholism could turn to the Mel Trotter Mission, founded by its namesake in 1900.
Lumber barons soon discovered that lumber was a finite resource. "Depletion of Michigan’s forests put an end to the logging industry, requiring furniture companies to import lumber, as they still do today. Due to a nationwide industry slump between 1905 and 1910, furniture workers received only minimal raises or none at all." Source
Nationwide, by the early 1900s, the United States was becoming more urban and industrial, but factory work paid low wages for long hours. When people lost their homes, they often ended up on the city streets. Source
. "By 1900, most U.S. cities had their own skid rows. They had to. Skid rows contained the cheapest pool of temporary labor available. These men, who worked for as little as their employers could possibly pay, needed a place to live and so skid row's low-rent, single-room hotels, shared bathrooms, and cheap taverns made sense. Transients moved from place to place, following the work, escaping from family and responsibilities." Source
"In contrast to a climate favoring the wealthy, there was an almost complete absence of government benefits for workers. If workers were fired or laid off, they were on their own -- there was no unemployment assistance to help them until they found another job. Often, workers lived in housing provided by their employer, so that losing a job also meant losing a place to live." Source
In 1929, a Grand Rapids layman named John Van de Water established West Fulton Mission -- later renamed Guiding Light Mission -- to feed the community's unfortunate.
The Great Depression
The Great Depression caused a huge rise in homelessness as families pulled up roots and traveled in search of work. Migrant workers from the drought-ridden Midwestern states also hit the road to flee the Dust Bowl. There was 25% unemployment during this time, and the tramp transformed to transient. (Carlson) Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal helped some, as well as citizens giving alms. (Carlson)
In Grand Rapids, the Great Depression forced one of every two furniture factories to close their doors, putting over 25% of the city's workers out of their jobs. Grand Rapids' suffering was especially severe because many Americans deferred furniture purchases as they struggled to meet basic needs. Source
. For most of the 1930s, many workers depended on government programs for the work they needed to support their families.
New Deal programs helped whites become homeowners, but African Americans, considered financial risks, were not given loans and federal money to become suburban homeowners. Of the $120 billion of government-backed loans to new homeowners between 1934-1962, 98% went to white people. (Carlson)
World War II and the 1950s-1970s
World War II provided a way for men to escape poverty, and during this period, homelessness decreased. (Carlson) "Skid Row populations across America declined as the war began because many had joined the army or worked industrial jobs in the war effort. The GI Bill of Rights and other social welfare benefits helped many move out of skid row." Source
. With the railroad and ports built, the need for transient migratory workers all but disappeared. American cities began to tear down their skid rows.
These and other fast-approaching societal changes posed tough new challenges for Grand Rapids-based home placement programs. A rise in alcoholism and drug use put "orphans" dangerously at risk of family neglect, abuse, and violence. Source
Adding to the problem of homelessness in the 1950s was a societal shift away from long-term institutionalization and toward 'community-based' treatment for the mentally ill. Homelessness was no longer limited to skid row and increased sharply, as during the 1960s and 70s, urban renewal displaced large numbers of people at the same time Vietnam veterans returned home. In 1967 in Grand Rapids, Degage Ministries was established to help the needy.
In 1973, the average private, non-supervisory, non-agricultural wage reached its peak at $9.72. By 1983, adjusting for inflation, the same worker was paid $8.76 per hour. (Carlson) During that same time period, federal programs for poor people were cut by $140 billion. This adversely affected HUD, unemployment benefits, disability, food stamps, and family welfare programs. (Carlson)
Interspersed with this misery were amazing success stories. Inspired by a Quaker community’s positive attitude, Marian Clements lifted herself out of her negative situation, and in 1977, "determined to stand on her own feet as well as help others in a similar situation, purchased an 1879-era home near the intersection of Cass and Pleasant Street in Grand Rapids, MI. ... She called it Well House." Source
In the 1980s, housing and social service cuts increased at the same time the economy deteriorated. The strength of workers' unions declined significantly: In 1981, the Federal Government broke the Air Traffic Controllers' Strike when it fired over 11,000 employees, beginning a trend of unions losing leverage to demand fair wages and benefits. The lack of unions and the increase in service sector jobs forced people to spend more of their income on healthcare, daycare, and other necessities. (Carlson)
"In 1980, downtown Grand Rapids was a far different place. The magnificent restoration of the Pantlind Hotel into the Amway Grand Plaza had been completed. Other major construction projects were underway. Both fueled real estate speculation and caused apprehension that our downtown neighbors, primarily low-income individuals and families at that time, might be pushed out of the neighborhood: displaced by gentrification." Source
"At the same time, the number of individuals living on our downtown streets was growing, a partial consequence of the deinstitutionalization of the mentally ill in Michigan. To address these growing concerns, seven downtown churches and two non-profit organizations came together to establish a new non-profit organization to provide affordable housing and vital support services for individuals and families. This new entity was incorporated in 1980 as Dwelling Place." Source
Access of West Michigan began operations in 1981 in response to federal government cutbacks for social services programs. Source
. In 1983, Habitat Kent began its mission to help low-income families gain homeownership.
From January 1981 to January 1986, plant closures, elimination of positions or shifts, or slack work forced 10.8 million people out of work across the country. (Bureau of Labor Statistics, cited by Rachel Kamel in 'The Global Factory.' 1990. American Friends Service Committee.)
The worker/CEO pay gap skyrocketed from 1980, when the gap between the highest and average paid work was 42:1 to 531:1 in 2000. (Chuck Collins & Felice Yeakel, Economic Apartheid in America.) During this same time period, rental rates increased as wages decreased.
At the same time as expectations rise, the standard of living offered by low-skilled work continues to decline. In 1970, the average income for a male with a high-school degree amounted to more than double the poverty line for a family of four. In 1990, it exceeded the poverty line by only 60 percent. (Cass, Oren. "The height of the net: how can an anti-poverty program encourage people to work?" National Review 14 Oct. 2013: 23. U.S. History in Context. Web. 7 Dec. 2013.)
Today, in 2013, the average income clears the threshold by only 30 percent. For entry-level positions specifically, those numbers drop even lower. Entry-level jobs are often just stepping stones to better opportunities for workers who develop skills and a track record of performance. "But that upward mobility requires that the initial leap into the workforce be made. Without a sufficient income gap, it may never be." (Cass)
*English nursery rhyme circa 1842
Suffice it to say, homelessness is a growing, multi-faceted dilemma. Today across America, nearly 50 million people live in poverty or are homeless (out of a total of 313.9 million). Read Part I in our series here. In future Do Good columns, we will continue to examine what local organizations and individuals are doing to combat homelessness in Grand Rapids, and we will take a look at other communities that are experimenting with innovative ideas.
- Educate yourself about homelessness. Here's a good source
to get you started.
- Donate to organizations like Degage Ministries
, Kids Food Basket
, Catherine's Health Center
, Mel Trotter Ministries
, Guiding Light Mission
, Feeding America West Michigan
, Dwelling Place
, In The Image
, or your favorite charity.
Victoria Mullen is the Do Good editor for Rapid Growth Media.
Photographs by Adam Bird