Down and Out in America: The Origins of Homelessness

Down and Out in America: The Origins of Homelessness

by Peter H. Rossi

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The most accurate and comprehensive picture of homelessness to date, this study offers a powerful explanation of its causes, proposes short- and long-term solutions, and documents the striking contrasts between the homeless of the 1950s and 1960s and the contemporary homeless population, which is younger and contains more women, children, and blacks.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226162324
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 11/22/2013
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 255
File size: 9 MB

About the Author

Peter H. Rossi is Stuart A. Rice Professor of Sociology and Director of the Social and Demographic Research Institute at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.

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Down and Out in America

The Origins of Homelessness

By Peter H. Rossi

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 1989 Peter H. Rossi
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-72829-2


On the Bottom and Out on the Fringe

Portraits of the Down and Out

Extreme poverty and homelessness are useful abstractions that only dimly reflect the concrete human details of the extremely poor and the homeless. Most of this book concerns those abstractions. Some intimate knowledge of the people described by the terms extremely poor and homeless can be gleaned from this handful of composite case histories.


Joseph Fisher, a black man, was thirty-three years old in 1986 when he was interviewed in a Chicago shelter. He was born in Chicago and had lived there all his life except for a two-year enlistment in the navy. His parents, now divorced, still live in that city, as do his older brother and a younger sister. Mr. Fisher did not graduate from high school, although he did qualify for a GED (general equivalency diploma) in the navy. He was employed for a short time "doing factory work" after his discharge in 1976 and has not worked steadily since. Mr. Fisher has been homeless this time for about eighteen months but has been homeless before for shorter periods.

Mr. Fisher looks considerably older than his age. He is thin and seems undernourished. He rates his health as very poor and says he has problems with his kidneys and heart, both conditions that impair his ability to work.

Before becoming homeless, he lived with his mother and younger sister in their apartment, but his mother asked him to leave. He would like to go back with his family but does not believe they would take him in again. He has never been married, although he fathered a child with whom he currently has no contact. He phones his mother every month or so and sometimes sleeps at her apartment.

Mr. Fisher earns ten to fifteen dollars a week hawking newspapers to drivers stopped at downtown traffic lights. Occasionally he receives some day work through a labor contractor. He was on General Assistance but somehow lost his eligibility. Mr. Fisher would like to have steady work but no longer even tries to find regular employment.

Mr. Fisher sleeps most nights in a shelter run by evangelical missionaries, lining up with several hundred others in the late afternoon to be signed in and receive a bed assignment. In the mornings the shelter turns him out. Some days he can get a batch of newspapers from a circulation truck that comes to the shelter looking for men to peddle them. Most days he spends wandering around within a few blocks of the shelter, getting lunch from a local food kitchen. Sometimes he panhandles.

Mr. Fisher is an alcoholic: when he has money, he often spends it on cheap wine, sometimes sharing his fifth with other homeless men. When he has no money, he sometimes gets drinks from friends who happen to have cash.

When interviewed, he was sober, clean, and neatly dressed, though in shabby, unpressed clothing. According to the interviewer he was coherent and articulate in his answers. However, he shows the clinical signs of major depression: he sees no hope for the future, often has no appetite, and thinks about suicide several times a month.


Walter Johnson was interviewed while waiting in line to receive a meal at a Chicago food kitchen set up for homeless persons. He was thirty-five at the time and lived in a room in a nearby SRO (single-room occupancy) hotel, for which he paid $200 a month.

Mr. Johnson works twenty to thirty hours a week as a busboy in a downtown restaurant, earning $80 to $150 depending on the hours. His earnings allow him to pay his rent regularly but do not give him much leeway for other expenses. Once or twice a week when his cash is low, he joins the food lines. Buying a new pair of shoes forces him to show up regularly in the food lines for a week or so.

He went to work in a metal fabricating plant when he finished high school and worked there more or less steadily until the plant closed four years ago. Since then the only jobs he has been able to pick up have been at slightly more than minimum wage. He has tried repeatedly to get steadier employment at higher wages. Despite high-school graduation, Mr. Johnson does not read or write with any ease. Indeed, one of his major problems is that he cannot fill out an employment application without help.

He has a few friends, mostly fellow residents in his SRO. Occasionally he goes to a local bar with them. He does not drink heavily, saying he cannot afford to.

Mr. Johnson has never married. He lived with his parents until he was twenty-five but moved out when his mother died. He is not sure where his father is now living, nor does he know the addresses of his brother and two sisters.

Mr. Johnson seems very depressed about his future. He worries about what may happen if he loses his job, fearing he might have to resort to the shelters.


Phoebe Cott, a white woman, was thirty-eight when she was interviewed in 1985. Born in Chicago, she lives with her mother and several younger brothers and sisters in a small apartment. She was interviewed because she is a General Assistance recipient, receiving a monthly check of $154 from the Illinois Department of Public Aid. She gives her mother $75 each month to help pay living expenses. Occasionally she works, usually as temporary help in local stores.

Ms. Cott married at eighteen and was divorced after two years. She had no children. Since finishing high school, she has been employed fairly steadily, mostly at low-level clerical jobs—receptionist, retail sales clerk, data entry, and such. None of the jobs lasted long, but until 1983 she was able to rent small apartments by herself or occasionally with a live-in partner.

In 1983 she was injured seriously enough in a car accident to require several weeks in the hospital and a long period of recovery. When she left the hospital, she went to live with her mother while she recovered. She has not worked steadily since. After exhausting her unemployment benefits, she applied for General Assistance and has been on the rolls for about six months.

Ms. Cott hopes to find work soon. She has looked consistently, prodded somewhat by the General Assistance requirements for job search. When she finds steady work, she would like to have her own apartment.


Dennis Calder was interviewed standing in line at a food kitchen in downtown Los Angeles in 1986. He was then thirty-two years old and had lived in that city since early childhood, when he arrived from Texas with his parents and siblings.

Mr. Calder was married for a few years in his early twenties and is now divorced. He has not been in touch with his ex-wife or his two children for several years. Since the breakup of his marriage, he has lived by himself, mostly in rented apartments. For some of the time he lived with his parents, usually for the few weeks between his employment episodes. His parents moved back to Texas in 1980.

Mr. Calder has been intermittently employed since he left high school in his junior year, working in low-paying jobs such as parking attendant, busboy, and wallboard installer. In 1980 he was convicted of breaking and entering and sentenced to a year in a minimum-security California prison. This was his fourth arrest on felony charges; the previous arrests had led to dropped charges or probation. With time off for good behavior, he returned to Los Angeles in 1981. Since his release he has had a hard time finding and keeping employment and has worked less than six months out of every year.

In 1986 he was on California's General Relief rolls, receiving $212 a month. He lived in an SRO hotel most of the time, but the benefits were not enough to cover a full month's rent, food, and other expenses. Mr. Calder got along by sleeping in shelters for about one-fourth of the nights each month and by frequently patronizing food kitchens, clothing depots, and other services set up for homeless people in the downtown area.

Mr. Calder does not consider himself an alcoholic, although he does drink moderately heavily. His health is good, and he is neat and clean. Scars from an old facial injury mar his looks. He is not a sanguine person and believes he has little future. Although he looks for work every week, he doesn't have much hope that he can find steady employment. "Something always goes wrong with me," he replied when asked why he had trouble finding work.


Ruth Coronod was interviewed in 1985 in a Chicago South Side shelter for homeless families, where she had been living for a month with her two daughters, aged two years and six months. She is a slight black woman who was then twenty but looked sixteen or seventeen.

Ms. Coronod has never been employed. In her last year of high school she became pregnant with her older daughter and dropped out. After the baby was born she lived in her mother's home, supported by an AFDC grant. The child's father initially contributed small sums for his daughter's support but has not done so for more than a year. Her younger daughter was fathered by another young man.

A month before the interview her mother asked her to move out, and she found that the shelter would keep her for two months while she looked for an apartment. Although her AFDC benefits will increase when she finds a place to rent, those benefits plus other programs do not provide enough funds for any but the cheapest apartments. She expects to find a place soon and to leave the shelter. Shelter housing counselors are helping her search.

Ms. Coronod would like to work but has only a vague notion of how to find a job and even vaguer ideas about what kind of work she might do.


Henry Kubilik, a white man, was fifty-five years old in 1985 when interviewed in his room in a Chicago SRO hotel. He has been living in SRO hotels since the breakup of his marriage in 1975.

Mr. Kubilik worked in a South Chicago steel mill from high-school graduation until 1974, when he suffered a heart attack. After recovery he needed a less physically demanding occupation and took a job as a salesman for a home-renovation firm. His income declined and became erratic. He tried to go back to the steel mills, but by that time the company had cut back production severely and could find no place for him except in very poorly paying positions. His marriage began to go to pieces as his earning ability declined. He left his wife and three adolescent children in 1975 and was divorced in 1980. His wife has remarried.

He sees very little of his children, who are now married. He occasionally visits his widowed mother and his married siblings but does not consider his relationships with these relatives very close.

Since leaving sales, he has held a number of low-paying, low-skill jobs. When interviewed he was working as a guard for a private security firm, earning $100 to $300 a week depending on how often he was called to work. He would like to find steadier employment.

Mr. Kubilik has been homeless several times for short periods when his bouts of unemployment exhausted his cash reserves. During his homeless episodes, he lived in shelters while he looked for work.

He is worried about his health, in particular how he would survive a second heart attack. Without health insurance, he fears he would not get proper care.


Eugene Snapps is a slight white man of twenty-five with a strong regional accent. He is a recent arrival in the Sun Belt city where he was interviewed, having traveled from the small rural market town one hundred miles away where he grew up.

A high-school dropout, Mr. Snapps has held a succession of low-paying jobs in construction, gas stations, fast-food restaurants, and retail stores. The jobs have never lasted more than a few months; most he has simply left. In his hometown, employment has become harder and harder to find.

He came to the city to find work. After exhausting the $200 his father gave him as a stake, Mr. Snapps came to the Salvation Army for shelter. Under shelter rules, he is allowed to stay five days, then he must find a bed elsewhere for ten days. When barred from the Salvation Army shelter, he sleeps in public places—parks, vestibules, bus stations, and so on. He has been in the city for the three summer months.

Mr. Snapps was interviewed in a local park, where he was sitting on a bench talking to several other men. He was dressed in blue jeans and a T-shirt, both reasonably clean. At the time he had heavy facial stubble and needed a haircut. Mr. Snapps says he has trouble filling out employment forms and doing arithmetic.

He hopes to find a job soon and makes the rounds of construction companies weekly. If he doesn't find work soon, he intends to go back to his hometown. He hopes his father and mother will make a place for him in their home.


John Dore was interviewed in 1986 as he huddled in a sandwichlike arrangement of cardboard over a steam grate in Washington, D.C. He was unkempt, wearing soiled and ragged clothing, and his face and hands were dirty. He had difficulty understanding the questions, and they often had to be repeated. His answers were confused and sometimes contradictory.

Mr. Dore is forty-five years old but looks in his sixties. He has been homeless in the District for more than four years. He never graduated from high school, leaving when he was sixteen. When younger he worked primarily as a warehouse laborer for the General Services Administration, running a forklift that shuttled paper supplies into and out of inventory, loading and unloading trucks. He lost his GSA job in 1970 for repeated absences and being incapacitated on the job.

Mr. Dore is an alcoholic and claims to have undergone half a dozen detoxification sessions. He drinks whenever he can get the money to buy pints of cheap wine. His only source of income is panhandling, and he averages a dollar or two a day. He was sober when interviewed, or so he claimed. Indeed, the interviewer promised him a fee of $5, which he planned to spend on wine.

Mr. Dore has never married, nor does he claim to have children. Until 1980 he lived with his parents, who provided food and lodging. When he worked, he gave them some money for room and board. In 1980 his father died and his mother moved to Pittsburgh to live with his married sister. For a year he rented rooms in cheap hotels using money his mother sent him. After she stopped sending money he slept in one shelter or another, but as each shelter came to recognize him as a chronic alcoholic, he was refused admission because his behavior upset other clients. Except when he admitted himself to a detoxification unit or was taken to a hospital, he slept on the streets, usually on the same steam grate.

Mr. Dore's decades of heavy drinking have probably impaired his mental functions. He claims to hear voices that constantly urge him to drink. He is certain FBI agents are trying to kidnap him and send him to Cuba or Russia. He is subject to alcoholic seizures and has been injured several times when he fell in traffic. He was not sure what year it was or who was the current president of the United States.


Ida Madigan was thirty-five years old when interviewed in a woman's day shelter on New York's West Side, but she looked fifty. Although she seemed freshly washed up, her overall appearance was of unkempt frowsiness. Although it was a hot day in July, she sat on a bench in the shelter wearing a ragged winter coat over a wrinkled rayon dress. Her hair was uncombed and straggled across her face.

Ms. Madigan has been homeless for several years. In 1982 she committed herself to a psychiatric hospital out of fear that she would commit suicide and stayed six months. After her discharge, she lived for a time in an SRO hotel, supported by Social Security disability payments. She does not understand why her eligibility was terminated in 1984, but since then she has lived in shelters and on the streets.

Ms. Madigan held a number of clerical jobs after finishing high school, the longest being four years as a billing clerk for a department store. She lost that job when she began to have severe depressive episodes and could not get to work. Subsequently she held a series of short-term clerical jobs. Since her discharge from the hospital Ms. Madigan has not worked, and she does not believe she has the strength to hold a job because of her "nerves."

Before her hospitalization she shared a small apartment with her sister and several other women, each contributing a share of household expenses and rent. During Ms. Madigan's periods of unemployment, her sister would pay her share. While she was in the hospital her sister married and moved to Atlanta. She does not know what happened to the other women.

Ms. Madigan has never married and has no children. Her parents are both dead. She has not been in touch with her only sister for a number of years.


John Deiring, a forty-seven-year-old white man, now dead, came to a medical clinic for the homeless in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1986 for treatment for severe bruises and a slight cut on his arm, received when he "fell on the streets."

He claimed to have been homeless since he was twenty, when his parents asked him to leave their home because of his heavy drinking and irregular work habits.


Excerpted from Down and Out in America by Peter H. Rossi. Copyright © 1989 Peter H. Rossi. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

1. On the Bottom and Out on the Fringe
2. The New Homeless and the Old
3. Counting the Homeless and the Extremely Poor
4. The Condition of the Homeless and the Extremely Poor: Location and Economic Circumstances
5. The Demography of Homelessness and Extreme Poverty
6. Vulnerability to Homelessness
7. Why We Have Homelessness and Extreme Poverty and What to Do about Them
Appendix A. Annotated Bibliography of the Combined Homeless Studies and Studies on the Extremely Poor
Appendix B. The Design of the Chicago Homeless Study

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