Before the existence of city shelters, there was one place the increasing number of homeless men and women in 19th century New York could sleep at night for free: police station basements.
“In 1857, the police formalized longstanding practice and required each precinct to designate a station house for lodging ‘vagrant and disorderly persons’ overnight,” states The Encyclopedia of New York City.
“Soon notorious for the crush of disreputable humanity they housed, such ‘night refuges’ did offer stranded citizens an alternative to the almshouse.”
How big was that crush of humanity?
In 1880, after the Panic of 1873 drove up unemployment in an economically divided New York, more than 124,000 people had spent time sleeping on the “soft side of a plank” in a station house, as social reformer Jacob Riis put it in 1889’s How the Other Half Lives.
What to do about “tramps,” as anyone without a fixed address became known, was a huge concern at the time.
An 1886 Municipal Lodging House Act prompted the opening a city-run shelter for men, and the Charity Organization Society operated a “wayfarer’s lodge” on West 29th Street where the homeless could chop wood in exchange for accommodations.
Jacob Riis convinced the city to shut police station basements for good in 1896.
In his 1900 book A Ten Years’ War, Riis cheered their demise, dubbing these bare bones, reportedly disease-ridden places an “awful parody on municipal charity.”
In its place, the city housed homeless men on a barge in the East River, and then in 1909, at the Municipal Lodging House on East 25th Street and the East River.
[Top illustration: NYPL Digital Gallery; bottom photos of police basement lodgings: Jacob Riis]