Mayor La Guardia’s Homeless Solution – Arrest Them!

New York City Mayor Fiorello La Guardia’s 1942 solution for homelessness: Get to work or we’ll arrest you!

Bowery bums told to leave by LaGuardia 1942Rounding ’em up

New York City – “The Bowery Bum must go!” decreed New York’s Mayor La Guardia in his latest drive for municipal purity, and police squads promptly invaded the habitats of New York’s human derelicts and piled their collection into patrol wagons. Photo shows a group of the hapless men climbing into the “pie wagon”.  The mayor predicted that 30 days in the workhouse would cure them of their gutter-sleeping habits. (photo credit Acme) 11/18/1942

In 1942 some of New York City’s homeless population were comprised of families, but it also had a great deal of what were termed derelicts, vagrants and bums. These were the denizens of New York’s infamous street of despair, the Bowery.

That November, under the orders of Chief Magistrate Henry H. Curran and with the blessing of Mayor Fiorello La Guardia, the order to clear the Bowery bums off the streets or be arrested was given. It may sound harsh, but then it was how the city felt they could best deal with the undesired population inhabiting the streets of the Bowery. Mayor La Guardia claimed he had received complaints from several mission societies and churches along the Bowery about the actions of the homeless on the street.

Magistrate Curran concluded that these men should get jobs and the city would find work for them as railroad track workers, hospital porters or even in defense plants, as the country needed factory workers for the war effort. If the homeless would not work, they would go to jail.

Curran believed that the homeless men were not necessarily bums. Curran told the New York Herald-Tribune “The typical Bowery bum is a law-abiding person who is just down on their luck. They don’t kill, injure, steal or defame. He is thoughtful and generous to the last drop of liquor and last cigarette. Most of these men like liquor and dislike work, one as much as another. A great many can work, but a great many more are unfit.”

Bowery bum sleeps it off, 1949. photo: Howard Byrne

Bowery bum sleeps it off, 1949. photo: Howard Byrne

One police sergeant noted that these men weren’t bums in the true sense of the word, but really forgotten men. The sergeant said, “We’ve had lawyers, doctors and other men of prominence brought in from the Bowery. In most cases family difficulties led them to slip and they hit the Bowery and then hit the drink.”

Curran added, “Some will take the jobs we offer them, others will not. Some will work a few days and leave. But if we save one out of fifty, our job is worth doing.”

Most of the men who were rounded up were charged with disorderly conduct for stationing themselves at a specified place while drinking from a bottle to the annoyance of other persons.

In this initial drive to combat homelessness,120 men were rounded up.

Curran and other magistrates heard the pleas of the arrested. The magistrates worked out a system to have qualified men investigated, fingerprinted, given suspended sentences and then put to work. Various city agencies were assigned the task of rehabilitating the men, finding them lodging and suitable work. If they did not show up for work, the sentences would then be upheld.

In Essex Market Court where 49 of the men were taken for hearings, 23 were given suspended sentences by Magistrate Haddock, and were sent to seek employment. Three were sentenced, and the remaining 20 were held at the Tombs prison until they were investigated and then their fate would be decided a few days later.

Magistrate Haddock said, “We don’t want to punish these men so much as we wish to reclaim them. There are lots of vacancies in the war picture, and there’s a great need for them. Our purpose is to straighten them out, and if it’s at all possible, we will. If there are those that need hospitalization, we’ll get it for them. The real bums however will get their thirty to sixty days.”

Obviously in the long run, the compulsory labor or jail plan did not alleviate the homeless problem.

While the Bowery bum may have vanished from New York’s landscape, the problem of homelessness in New York remains unsolved.

Mayor De Blasio is deploying teams to work with the homeless and has vowed to provide more permanent shelters and long term solutions. Governor Cuomo has also pledged to fight homelessness but has taken a harder tact by insisting that the homeless be forcibly removed from streets when the temperature drops below freezing.

The effective, real solution? Don’t hold your breath waiting for it. A permanent solution to the homeless problem has eluded the best minds with the noblest intentions since the city was founded. What’s going to change that?

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