America has a history of hard-luck stories. The first widespread flux of migrant laborers grew from the Civil War’s surplus of ex-slave labor and antebellum poverty. Soldiers returned from World War I and II to a country without an economic niche for veterans; instead some joined the migrant labor forces. Economic depression during the Dust Bowl years led to the formation of Hoovervilles and other temporary living quarters, constructed as people moved away from parched farms to cities in hope of work. But before the 1980s, “hoboes” were a group of people without jobs; in 1982, the media began to label them as people without homes (Citizen Hobo 252).

Homelessness, as a symptom of systemic problems, changed in the 1980s. The structure of the government and social services changed as well. The 1970s stagnant economy, overseas competition for manufacturing jobs, and shift to low-paid retail or service sectors were cited as reasons behind the 7.4% drop in wages. The labor market polarized; workers became educated, permanent employees with high paychecks, or part-time, temporary workers, easily replaceable by a growing surplus labor army. While wages decreased, housing costs increased; low-cost housing declined by 30% in the 1980s. Not only did President Reagan’s 1981 election coincide with a recession, but his “supply-side” economics shifted the focus of government from standardizing citizen living quality to holding out the American dream of wealth for a select few. Tax cuts were made across economic stations, but especially for the rich, in the hopes of stimulating reinvestment among the elite and thus reviving the economy. Fewer taxes meant less government spending on social welfare and housing problems while a downtrodden economy meant more demand for those services.

The transition from joblessness to homelessness coincided with a shift from a migrant labor force of white men to homeless women and children, black, or Hispanic men. The face of homelessness, of street poverty, changed from the Journey to Nowhere’s “Forgotten Manhood”—laid-off breadearners striving to provide for families—to diversify and polarize. As Citizen Hobo states, sympathy for victims of homelessness was transferred from the image of the striving homeless white man to compassion-evoking women with dependent children (251). No longer a class of workers without jobs, the old hoboes started to be replaced by potential homemakers without homes. At the same time, the men already marginalized by systemic racism and lower socioeconomic status, Hisplanic and black men, became prominent on the streets. In stark contrast, mothers came to symbolize the “worthy” poor, victims of harsh problems in the system, while men of color were seen as “unworthy” poor, possible threats.

In the midst of the rebirth of homelessness in the 1980s, interest in the homeless phenomena grew, nourished in part by the publication of Maharidge and Williamson’s Journey to Nowhere’s sympathetic and romanticized version of homelessness, and new populations. Advent of the National Coalition for the Homeless (NCH) in 1982 created an advocacy for homelessness in Washington, not just in the press. In contrast to conservative stereotypes of “unworthy” homeless from a “culture of poverty” Together, typified by Mitch Snyder, they portrayed the “dignity, moral worth, and essential blamelessness of the new poor,” a poverty that victimized ordinary people, worthy of governmental and societal aid. By 1983, success in the form of a $100 million Federal Emergency Management Agency funds to temporary shelters and homelessness was established. With money, and eventually academic studies by the Department of Housing and Urban Development, (HUD) the Reagan administration attempted to appease the activists.

With the HUD congressional testimony, homelessness became an official nationwide issue. Between Kragen’s “Hands Across Advocacy” campaign (1986), church shelters, and a series of street newspaper projects, homelessness became a focus of volunteerism in America. As a result of increasing public awareness and pressure, Reagan signed the McKinney Homeless Assistance Act in 1987. Funding was allocated back into social services targeting the homeless, at $880 million in homeless assistance. Annual counts of homeless populations, ethnicity studies, and incarceration correlation studies were financed. Ten Year Plans to end homelessness became the formulaic method for local county and city governments to acquire federal funding for homeless services; most complete with plans for study, databases of resources for homeless, and low-income housing.

As a result of this new era of homelessness and homeless legislation, homelessness became “a shelter condition,” literally defined by lack of housing (Citizen Hobo 254). In turn, address of the problem, by definition, addresses housing and government aid focuses on building and subsidizing housing, or providing services which allow low-income individuals and families to work towards housing goals. This approach does address the post-gentrification lack of low-income housing, though in Seattle’s case, plans to build 9,500 units when projected need for housing far exceeds that number and funding is dependent on local philanthropy solving even housing-defined homelessness by legislation may not happen within the plan’s scope. But among the homeless, definition of their condition varies. Sarah Dooling’s interviews with Seattle’s homeless show a more personal definition, from a lack of social network, to a process of recovery from previous life, to embrace of addition, to space supportive of sobriety, to alternative lifestyles or beliefs. Homelessness, to those with the most experience of it, has many personal forms and perhaps personal solutions as well. But in a social service system (HUD) which has gone from over $83 billion in 1978 to $1.4 billion personal solutions are not available, or at least not funded (Without Housing).

This dichotomy between ‘individualized’ homelessness and ‘formulaic’ homelessness provides another problem. Homelessness, even as a shelter condition, can be addressed as an individual problem, due to the individual in question, and the responsibility of the individual, or a formulaic problem, inherent flaws of the capitalist system, and thus societal responsibility. Pre-1980s, government, especially conservative government viewed the migrant labor forces more like the former. Snyder and other activists have pushed the later view. A synthesis view arises in academics today, a homelessness symptomatic of structural flaws in the system but expressed differently in different individuals (Dooling). If homelessness is only a symptom of American structural flaws, the best way to address homelessness should be individual treatment of the individuals, and systemic revision.

But America as an economic system persists. “An Apology for Indifference” details the myths behind perpetuation of the system. Upward motility, one of the founding principles of America, is statistically mythical. Between 1974-1991 of workers in the lowest 20% of wage earners 70% remained in the same group and 91% remained in the lowest 40% of the income bracket. Skills, or “reskilling” does not solve the lack of upward motility. While the jobs in the lowest-paying sectors (unskilled retail and service) increased 30-48%, jobs in the middle-paying sectors dropped from 37-16% of the workforce. Demand for unskilled, cheap labor is greater than skilled labor. Global markets and exportation of labor have a factor in this change, but this systemic problem could, and perhaps should be addressed by federal government. The last myth addressed is the myth of volunteerism. Instead of a federal, state, or local governmental initiative to address or fund homelessness, volunteerism has become the major factor in homeless social policy. Only a fraction of the total cost of Seattle’s ten year housing commission is planned to be funded by the government, the rest depends on fundraising billions in local support; a new initiative to further involve religious or church groups in providing shelters and meals to homelessness is also cited in the Ten Year Plan. As “An Apology for Indifference” points out, this “shifts the responsibility from the private and public sectors to the individual” (113). Perhaps due to institutional protection, economic tie-ups, or lack of support, structural change is noticeably absent from most legislation addressing homelessness.

The American dream of striking it rich through hard work and a bit of luck has fallen flat to many homeless. Yet it waits as a one in a billion carrot to homelessness’ stick. On the one side is great reward, on the other abject poverty, and the middle class totters between them. This divide between the Bush-ist “haves” and “have-nots” creates a system of alienation and commercial Darwinism. Attempts have been made, as modeled by street newspapers, from the top-down Big Issue in London to the bottom-up Streetsheet of San Fransisco. Involvement of predominantly homeless or predominantly upper-to-middle-class activists has not worked to solve or change homelessness. To dismantle the divide, both sides of the divide must work together.