No money, no food, and no place to sleep are problems that have plagued many people for centuries.
The increased number of special meals and food baskets distributed by nonprofit and charitable organizations during holidays attest to the intractability of poverty.
But the methods communities have used to meet the needs of the destitute have evolved over the years.
``The big dynamic in American history is what should be done with private funds and what should be done with public funds,'' said Mary M. Donohue, architectural historian for the Connecticut Historical Commission. The prevailing political point of view affects how much private and government funds provide, Donohue said. ``We've been arguing about it ever since.''
Regardless of the amount contributed, both private organizations and the government have shared the responsibility throughout the state's history. In the north central section of the state, there are numerous nonprofit organizations that help provide food and shelter for the poor, including the Enfield Food Shelf, Enfield Loaves and Fishes and the Manchester Area Conference of Churches.
The Enfield Food Shelf supplemented the food needs of 148 families last year and Enfield Loaves and Fishes, a community soup kitchen, served 18,000 meals in 1998. About 25 percent of those meals were served to children, including an after-school program.
The Manchester Area Conference of Churches, composed of 19 Christian churches and a synagogue, provides a homeless shelter for up to 40 adults, a community kitchen, a food pantry, fuel assistance and a job program. Last year, the organization served 27,000 meals, provided shelter for 456 individuals, helped out 785 households with food from its pantry and gave fuel assistance to nearly 300 households, according to Joe Piescik, MACC's director of community ministries.
During early colonial times, townspeople were bound not only by law but also by the dictates of the Bible to provide for the needy. They were willing to do that, but only for those they considered their own, or those settled in their town. Towns made sure paupers, idlers or vagrants didn't stay long enough.
According to a 1650 Connecticut law, towns were required to provide food, shelter, clothing, medicine and heat or fuel to any settled person in town, said Christopher Collier, Connecticut state historian and professor of history at the University of Connecticut.
Strangers were eyed suspiciously if their visit lasted more than a month. The family hosting the visit was questioned. It was a common practice to ``warn out'' anyone not settled in town, Collier said.
In fact, in 1790 the Enfield selectmen paid Levi Booth to dispose of the town's poor, according to the ``History of Enfield Connecticut'' by James Allen Kibbe.
Those warned to leave or removed from a town then became another town's problem.
But for those settled, the town would pay other residents to care for the poor. It wasn't uncommon for residents to be reimbursed for their expenses for taking widows and the elderly into their home. But when this system no longer could accommodate the increasing number of poor, Enfield, like other towns, established town farms or almeshouses.
In Enfield, the Town Farm was a 190-acre dairy farm that included several barns and a three-story dwelling that could accommodate about two to three dozen people. Those who were able were required to earn their keep, so they worked on the farm. It was located on Town Farm Road on both sides of the road where the town's transfer station and Wallop School Park now exist. The farm operated until the mid- 1950s, but both the barns and the dwelling were destroyed in fires during the early 1960s.
One of the state's first almeshouses was built in 1785 in Hartford. Enfield raised taxes in 1787, which enabled selectmen to rent a house in town for its poor. By 1852, of 133 towns in the state, 37 had almeshouses.
The problem with town farms or almeshouses was that anyone who was poor, regardless of the reason they got that way, was sent there. They became the dumping ground for the forgotten poor and used as nursing homes, orphanages, housing for the chronically inebriated and places to keep the insane poor and indigent idiots, as they were referred to at the time. They were even used as jails when local or country jails were too full. Those living in the poorhouses were called inmates.
By the middle of the 1800s, the state began to establish separate institutions to handle different kinds of impoverished residents, such as county homes for orphaned children, state hospitals for those with mental illnesses, special schools for delinquent children and other schools for children with developmental disabilities.
Since the middle part of this century, public housing was seen as a way to offer the poor more dignity, said Donohue, the historian with the Connecticut Historical Commission.
A mix of government and charitable organizations continue to help the poor. They are no longer housed in almeshouses or town farms: Homeless shelters have taken their place. Community soup kitchens and food shelves, many operated by nonprofit organizations, continue to help feed the poor as government programs provide a variety of assistance, incuding food stamps, public housing and Medicare.
Donohue said the current political trend is for the government to offer temporary help to the poor to discourage multi-generations living on welfare.
First published Nov. 29, 1999Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times