100 years after 1,000 homeless men

By Ben Cook

In 1911 William Taft was president of the United States and Carter Harrison Jr. was the first Chicago-born mayor of Chicago. The infamous Stockyards were in full swing and factory work abounded, but many Chicagoans slipped through the cracks of opportunity and became homeless. It was up to religious organizations and the Chicago Bureau of Charities to administer humanitarian aid.

At that time it was common to consider the homeless population “tramps” and “bums,” or other easy-to-file away stereotypes.

One individual, Alice Solenberger, took a different approach. Mrs. Solenberger was in charge of the Central District of the Chicago Bureau of Charities, located in the South Loop.  She interviewed men who were referred to her office to determine their individual need, and starting in the year 1900 she decided it would be useful to start collecting her case data on homeless men, as accurate demographic information was at best scarce and commonly non-existent.

Over the following 10 years she compiled 1000 interviews in all, but unfortunately died in December, 1910 before she could complete the forward section of her work.  Regardless, in 1911 “One Thousand Homeless Men: A Study of Original Records,” was published and soon became essential reading for those in the emerging field of social work.

The study is at once filled with both comprehensive statistics used to determine homeless trends and individual narratives that allow homeless men to become more than statistics-but human beings. Both aspects were at the time revelatory, especially by allowing homeless men to rise above stereotypes. As Francis H McLean mentions in the forward, “It portrays clearly where society has failed, where the individual has failed.

Previous to this work it was common to categorize homeless men into two categories: those who will work, and those who won’t. Mrs. Solenberger created new categories that included: The crippled and maimed; those injured by industrial accidents; the insane; the feeble-minded; the epileptic; the elderly; the seasonal and casual laborer; chronic beggars; confirmed wanderers; and finally homeless, vagrant and runaway boys. While many of these categories may sound horribly antiquated, the creation of these categories for her study was nonetheless a hugely progressive step in 1900.

The following is a selection excerpts from Solenberger’s work, “One Thousand Homeless Men.”

Solenberger defines a homeless man as “any man who has left one family group and not yet identified himself with another. It might include hundreds of men living in clubs, hotels, and boarding houses, and its use would not necessarily imply a forlorn or penniless condition. But for the purpose of this study the term will be used to designate those men of the homeless class who live in cheap lodging houses in the congested part of the city.”  Chicago was especially noteworthy for its lodging houses.

Solenberger continues, “All large cities and some small ones in these days have cheap lodging houses in which men many secure a night’s lodging at a cost of from 10 to 25 cents.  With the exception for Greater New York, the city of Chicago has a greater number of such houses and a larger floating transient population than any other city in the United States.”

Largely due to serving as a central rail hub for the nation, “Among tramps and vagrants also, Chicago is a favorite rallying place.” She also noted that “As in most other large cities, politicians are likely at election times to add to the comfort and security of a floating population whose votes may usually be counted upon in return for small favors.”

Of this homeless population, Solenberger created the subcategories of “self-supporting, temporarily dependent, chronically dependent, and parasitic.”

Regarding the physical condition of the homeless men, Solenberger counted 195  men who “were addicted to excessive use of drink and known to be drug users.” 81 men were found to be “mentally unfit for work.” 220 men were confirmed tramps or wanderers. 117 men were homeless, vagrant, or runaway boys. 254 men were either temporarily or permanently crippled or maimed due to everything from birth defects to runaway horses, to jumping from windows during hotel fires.

She gives an example of the effects of one man’s accident. “A man on his way to newly-found and much-needed work one day gave an expressman a lift in handling a heavy trunk. By some awkwardness it slipped and crushed his right thumb. A trifling accident, perhaps, but the sore thumb, although given the best of surgical care from the beginning, not merely lost the man the permanent job to which he was going when the accident occurred, but keep him from any other work for several weeks. In another very similar case, an injured thumb was not given proper care and the man ultimately lost his left arm.” She chronicles several other heartbreaking cases where men suffered horrible accidents and were reduced from bright, capable working men into the chronically dependent.

Solenberger was troubled by the conditions that the chronically dependent endured.  She believed that a man’s self-respect was very much tied to his economic dependence, and that long-term housing at a lodging house was “morally poisonous.”

In modern homeless efforts, the “housing first” model has become the most popular-theoretically, if a person has stable housing, they have a better chance for success in other areas of their life.

Solenberger’s work supports this notion. “When men are homeless and are massed in great numbers in city lodging houses where there are practically no restraining and refining influences; where, in sharing a common living room they must of necessity associate with men who have long since become chronic tramps, confirmed beggars, or clever impostors…it is not surprising that many deteriorate rapidly and that such self-respect and decency as they may in the beginning have possessed is soon diminished or destroyed.”

She tells of one man whose self-esteem was damaged through having to use public aid for his livelihood. “He had always been fully self-supporting previous to the accident in which he lost one leg just below the hip. After the accident he became a street beggar, but never overcame an intolerable sense of shame and degradation. The man who sits on a public street with his hat before him and begs would seem, to most people, to be more shameless and hardened in his profession than the man who asks for a night’s lodging at the door; but this particular street beggar said that he himself had chosen the former method because it saved him from the shame of asking for help. “When I sit there, anyone can see that I am helpless, I do not have to speak.”

During her chapter on mental health, she postulated the effect of long-term homelessness and dependence on one’s mental state.

“One of the first questions of interest about insane homeless men is whether they are homeless and vagrant because of their insanity, or insane because of their vagrancy. The mode of life of the true tramp or vagrant, with its excitements, excesses, and irregularities, is such that it might reasonably be expected to cause insanity in a certain percentage of this type of cases.” She noted that “23 of the 52 insane were men of refinement, from good homes; eight were college men and 10 were high school graduates.”  Many of those deemed “mentally unfit” had been sent to Chicago after countless other cities had said that they were either unwanted or there weren’t enough resources to provide aid, so they were given a train ticket to Chicago.

In her chapter on the homeless elderly, she lamented her client’s situations. “No class of applicants from among the homeless seemed to be more uniformly hopeless and unhappy than the men who had passed 60, and who realized that the doors of industrial opportunity were being closed against them and that it was only a question of a short time before they must become wholly dependent upon charity.”

She also noted that “it is almost equally difficult for men in their 50s to find well-paid employment, while in certain lines of work men who drop out in their 40s or even in their latter 30s are not eligible for re-employment.” She noted that this population were not idle, but “respectable Irish, German, or American workmen, or in some cases, business or professional men, many of whom have spent all their lives in Chicago and have contributed their fair quota to its prosperity and wealth.” What she observed was a common urban problem before the advent of safety net programs like Social Security and Medicare.

Concerning this population she also noted that elderly women largely avoided this fate as they were offered board and care in a family’s home in return for cooking, sewing, and nannying children. The male population did not have this skill set, and were not offered this opportunity.

In her chapter concerning chronic beggars she differentiates four categories: the anti-social men who consider society their prey, those who have drifted into the habit, those with personal and social handicaps, and the “accidental” beggar. She concludes that “the task of re-building or of building up for the first time, self-respect and habits of industry in men who have become chronic beggars, is at best, a difficult one.”

Her chapter on runaway boys is particularly fascinating.  In an antiquated way she confirms that many of the boys suffer from “spring fever” or “wanderlust”-diagnoses that have no basis in modern medicine. It is still stunning that 117 boys were designated homeless, many of whom came from good homes but wanted to see the world and ran away.

While some of the conditions that existed in 1911 have radically improved-namely care of the elderly and less frequent industrial accidents-reading the individual stories in One Thousand Homeless Men serves as a haunting reminder of how quickly one’s life can take a turn for the worst when accidents and bad circumstances are compounded by poor access to medical care, education, or decent housing. Solenberger’s appeal for public understanding and access to opportunity as essential for giving those who are down-and-out a chance for rehabilitation is a message just as important for Chicago today as it was a century ago.

Read more about homelessness and 1,000 homeless men here.

Originally published by StreetWise Newspaper, Chicago, Ill. © http://www.streetnewsservice.org

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