Homelessness before 1970

Whenever college students ask Dehavenon "What did we do about homelessness before 1970?" Her answer is simple-there wasn't any. "We know what it takes to solve these problems, because even in our recent history there were times when they didn't exist. When I first began to work with the East Harlem Interfaith Welfare Committee public shelter was needed only for families who had been burnt out by fire. The greater need came after the mid 1970s, with the advent of the oil embargo, runaway inflation, and cutbacks in social programs. We lack a sense of history," Dehavenon says. "Many elected officials and foundation program officers have been around long enough to know what's going on, but I'm sure they don't discuss it at dinner parties either."

EAU-10 p.m.

As the night wears on, the stress and confusion at the EAU become more palpable as the time for another bus ride to another one-night shelter placement draws near. Anger runs beneath the surface as well. The families who have been churned have been given the runaround long enough to become outraged, and I remember this incendiary undercurrent when Dehavenon tells me later that at a subsequent visit "it was almost out of control."

As we linger outside the EAU, several childless couples head for a nearby park for the night, rather than take their chances in the notorious shelter known as the "living room," a gloomy, rat-infested abandoned factory with plastic school chairs in place of beds. I remember Dehavenon's earlier words: "We're supposed to be a civilized society. There are certain living standards that most of us take for granted, but these 20 years of documenting the causes and conditions of hunger and homelessness show that we don't always live up to them. Even now, in the best of economic times, we are still ambivalent about what we can and should do for others."

Kim Fisher '94 has written four previous articles for Reed, including a profile of William McGrew '56, president of Anatolia College in Greece, and a meditation on the honor principle.

Home Page
Home Page