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Abstract

An examination of the professional, political, and popular literature on the nature and extent of homelessness from 1890 to 1925 affords a comparison of the economic and social characteristics of the homeless population at the turn of the century with that of today. The discussion covers the ensuing debates over the causes of homelessness, the various subgroups among the homeless during both periods, and the relative rates of homelessness, the context of extreme poverty and dislocation, and the prevalence of individual disabilities. Except for the growing numbers of homeless families over the past decade, the homeless populations during both eras have many similarities. Then and now, homeless people tend to be young, single, and America-born, with fragmented social supports and a history of dysfunctional family relationships. Although individual difficulties play an important role in determining who is most vulnerable, the authors argue that systemic ills plaguing society virtually ensure the existence of homelessness. Furthermore, during both eras ideologically driven views and moral prejudices have obscured the fundamental question of this country's willingness to care for its neediest members.

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