The Homeless Poor of New York City

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In this class, the homeless poor, we embrace all those who have no fixed habitation who have no idea in the morning where they will obtain shelter for their weary bodies during the coming night. We find here every age represented from the infant in the mother's arms, through the rapid stages of development (as it is well known that pain and hunger have a wonderful effect in maturing infant humanity), to the aged, tottering towards the grave, only waiting for their summons to cross over the river of time; looking with yearning eyes towards the Home prepared for them on the shore of eternity.

It is impossible to estimate the number of this class, as we have no statistics to guide us, but it is supposed that there are about forty thousand vagrant children alone in this metropolis. From this frightful number of infant waifs we may judge of the amount of misery and destitution in our midst hidden from view behind our imposing marble warehouses and stately brownstone mansions.

We have been informed by a reliable police official that there are a large number of poor widows, whose husbands died in the service of our country during the late war, in a most destitute condition in this city, and that they frequently bring their children with them and apply for shelter at the station-houses. They attempt to eke out a miserable livelihood by sewing, and when this fails them they are obliged to go (in this Christian city) to the abodes of crime, to avoid the inclemency of the winter nights. Few persons can form an idea of the struggles, the privations, and the daily sufferings of lone women who earn their daily bread by the use of the needle. If the fine ladies who adorn themselves in costly robes could go behind the scenes after they have left their orders at the elegant shops of the dressmakers; could they see their delicate fabrics taken home by the poor sewing-women; see the weary forms bent over their work in the cheerless tenement-houses, each stitch accompanied by a painful throb of heart and brain as the night wears on and the solitary candle burns low; the famishing child as he tosses and turns on his bundle of rags, murmuring, "Bread, mother, bread!"__ay! if the beaming eyes of the votaries of fashion could by some magic power see on their rustling silks, their costly linen, their beautiful lace, the imprint of the gaunt, lean fingers of the poor sewing-women; could the tears that trickled down the worn cheeks crystallize where they have fallen; could the sighs which welled up from the overburdened heart strike with their low wailing sound on the ears of these worldlings they would be filled with a larger sense of duty to their fellow-creatures, a greater desire to follow the golden motto, "Do unto others as ye would that others should do unto you."

There is an official apathy to the condition of the extreme poor which, with the ballot placed in the hands of every man, has already produced baneful results to the well-being of the Republic, and must eventually, if not remedied, act detrimentally to its safety. If an unfortunate wretch, clad in tattered garments, pass through our streets or loiter near our homes, he is at once eyed suspiciously to wear the habiliments of poverty is evidence sufficient that the black heart of a criminal is enclosed within. It is true that promiscuous charity may do great harm, but it is surely the correct policy for a government, while it judiciously supplies the immediate wants of its poor classes with one hand, to open the avenues to employment with the other; thus teaching them the lesson impressed upon our first parents as they were banished from the Garden of Eden, that man must earn his daily bread by the sweat of his brow.

We have already said that it is computed by well-informed persons that we have in our midst some forty thousand vagrant children. Let us glance for a moment at their condition, and what is being done for them. it is difficult for any one to conceive the deplorable condition of these homeless children without personal observation. They tread the paths leading to moral destruction with such rapidity that hundreds of them are confirmed thieves and drunkards before they reach the age of twelve years. The day is passed in pilfering, and at night they sleep in some out-of-the-way place, under door-steps, in wagons, or wherever they can store their diminutive forms. Some time since, a regularly organized band of boys were discovered to have constructed a shelter under one of the piers; and here they congregated at night, each bringing in his booty stolen during the day. A few days since, during a visit to one of the mission-houses of this city, the lady in charge pointed out to us a little girl, not more than nine years old, telling us that she never came to the house without being more or less under the influence of liquor, and a glance at the bloated features and nervous, trembling hands showed conclusively that it was her habitual condition. We understand that there are fiends in the shape of men and women in this city who will sell such children a penny's worth of rum. Some persons have argued that these children are from bad parents, and under any circumstances, no matter how favorable, would be corrupt. Such an opinion is a libel on God and human nature. A certain proclivity to vice may be transmitted in the blood, but free-will remains in the most degenerate, and is sufficient, with the aid of a good education and the grace of God, to overcome this obstacle to virtue.

We know well the plastic nature of childhood, and if educated from the first to honesty, morality, and sobriety, it will indeed be found a rare exception in which the developed man will not possess these virtues, and prove an honor to himself and society. But if the first lisp of the infant repeats an oath which is used more frequently than any other word by the debased mother, or if, as is the case with many, as soon as the babe can walk alone it is taught the art of begging and stealing, what can we look for in the same child simply developed to manhood? Are you surprised that he makes a thief? he has never been taught anything else, and he naturally looks upon the law as something that interferes with the right to take anything he desires, if he can only do so without being detected. Would you look for pure water from a stream whose bed is covered with filthy slime, and whose banks are the receptacle of disgusting, decomposed offal? Surely you would not drink of such no matter how pure you knew the gurgling springs to be high up on the mountain-side from whence it received its supply.

Look at a babe as it is blessed with the first gleam of reason__its ability to notice things about it. Is there anything in the bright black eye to indicate the future cunning of the burglar? Do the rosy lips, wreathed in angel smiles, look as if they were fashioned to utter foul oaths and blasphemies? And the little chubby hands clasped in baby glee around the mother's neck, could they, by a natural instinct, ever be turned in brutal wrath against that self-same mother? Reason answers No to all these questions; and we argue that such vices are developed principally by education and example. Take this for granted, and, if we do nothing to save the child from such education, what right have we to imprison the developed man for acting upon the only doctrine he has ever been taught? Or a better view of the subject is: Would it not be the dictate of a sound political economy to take these children from the streets, and teach them some useful trade or pursuit, giving them, at the same time, the fundamental principles of Christianity, without which society is a tottering fabric, minus its very foundation? Do this, and we make producers out of the very men and women who will otherwise become consumers upon the state in the common prisons.

In several parishes of this city benevolent efforts are being made to rescue these children, but, so far as we can learn, the only institutions established where they are regularly taken care of and kept permanently are the following: "The Five Points House of Industry," "The Five Points Mission-House," "The Howard Mission"; and last, but we hope soon to be first in its wide-spread influence over these little creatures, is the one established some two years ago, and now located in East Thirteenth Street. This is managed by certain charitable Catholic ladies, and called "An Association for Befriending Children." As most of the poor children on the Island are, or should be, Catholics, it is but just that the last-mentioned should receive support and countenance from every Catholic in the city able to assist it, and thus enable the lady managers in a short time to erect branch homes in every parish on the island.

But come with us, dear reader, and let us look for ourselves at the condition of those who take advantage of the hospitality of the station-houses. Think for a moment that in 1862 there were seventy thousand nine hundred and thirty-eight lodgers, while 1871 presents the fearfully increased number of one hundred and forty-one thousand seven hundred and eighty who sought this shelter. Oh! that this number (equal nearly to one-sixth of the population of this vast metropolis), with its fearful weight of destitution and misery suffering and despair, could be placed in burning letters upon the minds of those able, ever without discommoding themselves, to relieve it!

Let us go back to midwinter. A blinding snow-storm is wrapping the earth in a white mantle, and it is after midnight, but these are only better reasons for our undertaking, as they secure us increased opportunity to see the phase of suffering we seek; for surely in a night like this the shelter of any roof is a luxury compared to the exposure of the street.

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Website: The History
Article Name: The Homeless Poor of New York City
Researcher/Transcriber Miriam Medina


 BIBLIOGRAPHY: Serial: Catholic World "The Homeless Poor of New York City; author: E.W.C. from the collection of Making of America Journal Articles.
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