Once Upon A Time, Home Sweet Home
By Miriam Medina

Part I


Homeless! Just the mere sound of the word, sends shivers up my spine. Statistics say that approximately 100, 000 New Yorkers experience street homelessness each year and that the City shelter system accommodates at least 38,000 of these homeless individuals on a daily basis, among which are included 16,000 children .The soup kitchens and food pantries that are made available throughout the city of New York, cannot satisfy the overwhelming demand of hungry men, women and children who desperately pour into their facilities to be fed. Unfortunately, those who are not of the lucky ones, are turned away to find nourishment elsewhere. This ongoing problem not only exists in New York City, it is now becoming a national crisis.

A Brief Overview of Street Homelessness During the 1800s Into Early 1900s

During the 1800s, homelessness was always present. The innocent victims that were most affected were the abandoned children by the thousands living on the streets of New York.

What poverty, misery, bitter circumstances or vice would hurl these innocent children into the streets, to grow up among the thieves and outcasts of Metropolitan society, to end up as beggars, hardened criminals and prostitutes? What can be expected from the future of such children exposed to vulgar jests and foul swearing of the outcasts who surround them? The school of the streets is not the best place to nurture pliable minds. Wherever these abandoned children came from, or for whatever reason they may have gotten here, they are here, living the life of a vagrant.  No one cares for them. And they care for no one. Some live by begging and thievery, while others may support themselves honestly. The street life has made them tough, yet deep under that tough facade, there is a lonely frightened child silently shedding tears, longing for a mother's affection and maternal care. They have become old before their time and shrewd in their vice. They sleep on steps, in cellars or wherever they could lay their weary head down. Home! the abandoned child's yearning. Even to the poorest of these children, whether it is a single crowded room, reeking with unhealthy smells, living in filthy unsanitary conditions, or dark smelly cellars, it was still home to them, a safe haven, and a shelter in the storm...

There were many factors that contributed to the homelessness of these children. One of the leading causes was due to overpopulation. The multitudes of poor immigrants who came to New York City during the mid 1800s into the early 1900s usually lived in the tenement district amid crime, filth and disease. The tenement houses in the lower part of Manhattan and other areas were overcrowded, lacking drainage and sufficient ventilation. Immigrants had to live in damp smelly cellars or attics, or up to six or 10 people, men, woman and children packed into a crowded single room. Many immigrants themselves would convert their apartments into sweatshops, where amid the unsanitary conditions they would manufacture garments, flowers and cigars. Everyone had to do their share, even the children, who worked long hours. Eventually, unable to continue supporting them, these children were forced by their parents into the streets to earn their own livelihood, leaving them abandoned to" fend for themselves by whatever means necessary."

Amongst these street wanderers and homeless persons was some of a much better class. Persons who were once bankers, stock brokers and wealthy merchants, had suffered staggering losses during the financial crashes that affected our nation leaving them completely penniless. Much of their failure was attributed to stock speculations, business deals gone wrong and extravagant living. Once known and respected among the world of prominent society, there were very few that would extend help or express sympathy for the ruined businessmen and their families. With no one to turn to, they too faced the same fate as so many of the others did. For these men and women who had only known wealth and comfort; the life of poverty was indeed an extremely devastating experience which they looked upon with an aversion. Keeping their distance from the others, they would live entirely to themselves, suffering and starving in silence. The men would try desperately to find some sort of employment, and if they did, they would work as hard as they could in the hopes that their lives will once again return to normal. Only if in desperate need, will they reach out to charitable organizations for help.

Fathers who had become disabled from the war, industrial accidents or sickness, were not able to continue providing for their families, which led to their being evicted by the merciless landlords. On a cold day crowds of these poor people would be seen in the public places, huddled together, shivering, around a blazing fire, hoping that some kind passerby would feel sympathy and toss them a coin or offer them some sort of lodgings for the night. It was not unusual to find whole families literally starving for want of food.

Then there were the Newsboys. In the New York Times article "The Newsboy" dated March 10, 1854, the following reference is made to them. ""Of all the classes of the great city, the newsboy is the very type of American independence. He has stood alone all his life. When other children were in nurseries or play-grounds, he was estimating debit and credit, laying by capital for the morrow, and elbowing through crowds, to sell his goods at the best possible rate. He was a man in business. He has spent most of his life learning the great lesson of Self-Help. These newsboys show many kindly and generous traits. They help one another. They often want to learn. Such lads as these are worth saving. They would make keen, industrious, enterprising men. Give them a chance to learn; get them out of their vagrant, homeless habits; try to bring a little of the great influences which are everywhere redeeming Society, to bear on them, and see whether the newsboys do not turn out good citizens."

In some cases where one parent would die, the remaining parent not able to care for the children, would abandon them to whatever fate had in store for them. These cast-a-ways were almost invariably left either in the streets or at some other public place where they may be found by someone.  A large amount of these children were placed in orphanages. It was but rarely that any child thus abandoned would result in their  being claimed by the parent at a later date.

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