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  • A Not So New Deal for the Homeless
  • Doug Genens (bio)

Scholars of the New Deal welfare state have long argued that local and state relief politics shaped its fragmented and stratified structure. The ideal of the white male breadwinner influenced local and state provisions, which in turn molded New Deal social policy along lines of gender, race, sexuality, and class. The resulting system provided nonstigmatizing security primarily to white males in certain industries and welfare to single mothers with children.1 For a short period, New Deal social policy also assisted homeless men. Local and state relief efforts, as well as the breadwinner ideal, similarly influenced New Deal aid to the homeless. Yet homeless relief failed to remain a meaningful part of the welfare system that formed in 1935. An inquiry into the history of New Deal homeless policy not only better illuminates the way the welfare state interacted with men, but also highlights the consequences of that interaction for the place of homeless assistance in the United States’ safety net.

The origins and long-term effects of the Social Security Act have been frequently studied, but the same cannot be said for the Federal Transient Program (FTP), the primary New Deal agency to aid the homeless. Initiated in 1933 under the Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA), the FTP gave money to states to help the homeless. Historians have argued that the FTP replaced the meager, largely private relief networks of the previous decades.2 Others have seen the program as a response in part to writers like Jack London and actor Charlie Chaplin, whose works in the 1920s romanticized the lives of the wandering poor. Their artistic productions were thought to have mitigated fears of homeless men and paved the way for federal relief.3 The FTP has also been viewed as representing “an alternative vision of social assistance” that transcended the boundaries of the breadwinner ideal because it provided relief to homeless men.4 [End Page 87]

By examining a private casework agency called the Bureau for Homeless Men, the FTP’s origins and the construction of a stratified welfare system in the United States take on a different character. Walter Hoy and Frank Bruno, who helped establish the agency in St. Louis in 1925, viewed the city’s network of shelters, workhouses, jails, and the “passing on” of homeless men as a key cause of homelessness, not a solution. Hoy and Bruno worked to replace this old system of mass care with a program of individualized casework. Casework would turn homeless men into family breadwinners and thereby end their homelessness. The FTP worked through individual states, and the framework created by the bureau between 1925 and 1933 played a decisive role in shaping Missouri’s transient program. The homeless man’s New Deal, then, did not simply replace the private edifice constructed before 1933. Instead, the FTP had roots in local efforts that sought to stem homelessness through a plan of individual transformation shaped by the male breadwinner ideal.

Hoy and Bruno argued that lacking a home did not necessarily make a man homeless. Instead, homelessness was a function of the way men related, or did not, to families.5 Isaac Gurman, a bureau caseworker, wrote that a homeless man’s “responsibilities, movements and plans are not limited by or at present concerned with family life.”6 More bluntly, Hoy stated that “the fact that he is unattached and not responsible to a family group where he resides makes him a homeless man.”7 Homeless men were therefore “unattached” men. Being labeled unattached did not in fact mean a man had no associations, only that he did not have suitable family relationships. The bureau’s vision was also racialized. The agency provided material relief to black men but did not believe they could be turned into breadwinners. Further, its definition of homelessness as a problem of masculinity effaced the problems of homeless women. Bureau caseworkers followed the larger trend in thinking about poverty during the 1920s by constructing homelessness as an individual matter resulting from deficiencies in white masculinity.8

The centrality of masculinity provides an opportunity to better understand the relationship between men and the...


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pp. 87-111
Launched on MUSE
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