This article explores the interpretive and commemorative landscape of houselessness/homelessness and poverty in the United States and United Kingdom and how public historians approach the practical work of interpreting and commemorating these histories in partnership with stakeholder communities. It begins by using the site of an unmarked, uncommemorated, nineteenth-century prison for the poor as an entry point to discuss important gaps in public historical interpretation. Then, it branches out to a survey of organizations and projects engaged in efforts to fill these gaps and the methods they use to work with and for community members with experiences of houselessness, arguing for increased collaborative curation, interdisciplinary interpretation, and commemoration of these histories.

On March 7, 1832, Unis Maria Quin was arrested in Philadelphia for “wandering about the streets without a house.”1 For this crime, she was arrested for vagrancy by a city watchman and sentenced to spend ten days in jail in the city’s Arch Street Prison. Quin was arrested under a state vagrancy law, like thousands of other women, men, and children throughout US history, for being unhoused and poor. These laws, which prohibited sleeping outdoors or in public spaces, begging, “having no fixed abode,” “having no visible means of getting a living,” and “being a strolling vagrant,” landed countless people experiencing poverty in jails in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. These statutes dated back to the colonial era, when colonists adopted them almost verbatim out of British jurisprudence and were ubiquitous across the nation until declared unconstitutional in 1972.2 In Quin’s city alone, as many as eight thousand people were incarcerated for vagrancy each year throughout the 1820s. Some estimates suggest that as many as fifty thousand people were unhoused and transient in New York City in this period.3

What did it feel like to face time in jail for these reasons? What were the interactions between unhoused people and the watchmen and constables arresting and escorting them to jail like? The answers to these questions are contingent on many factors—gender and race chief among them. The conditions inside these jails were publicly known to be abominable. Arch Street Prison was purpose-built to incarcerate unhoused people—chiefly people convicted of vagrancy, as well as debtors and some untried prisoners—at the intersection of Arch and Broad Streets in Philadelphia, the current site of the city’s Municipal Services building. The prison was designed to incarcerate people who entered the criminal justice system simply because of their poverty. It only stood for a couple of decades and was demolished around 1837. No evidence of the facility remains on the landscape, but it was once a central feature of the city’s criminal justice system, known as an “instrument of revenge and iniquity,” housing imprisoned people who were “destitute…hungry and weary,” left “nearly naked” inside the tall stone walls of the jail.4

The unmarked and uncommemorated site of the Arch Street Prison, which stood at the intersection of Broad and Arch Streets from the 1810s-1830s, now the Philadelphia Municipal Services Building on Thomas Paine Plaza. (Photo by author)

The unmarked and uncommemorated site of the Arch Street Prison, which stood at the intersection of Broad and Arch Streets from the 1810s-1830s, now the Philadelphia Municipal Services Building on Thomas Paine Plaza. (Photo by author)

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The only extant image of the Arch Street Prison, a watercolor from 1837, showing the imposing stone walls that enclosed the incarcerated poor. (Historical Society of Pennsylvania)

The only extant image of the Arch Street Prison, a watercolor from 1837, showing the imposing stone walls that enclosed the incarcerated poor. (Historical Society of Pennsylvania)

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There is almost no record of what it looked like when the international cholera epidemic of 1832 hit the jail and as many as a hundred incarcerated people charged with vagrancy died behind those walls. When inspectors visited the facility, they reported that they experienced “the most marked disgust at the filth, destitution, and personal misery in which the majority of the prisoners were found.” The inspectors smoked cigars to cover the scent inside the jail and reported a “general sensation…of desire to escape.”5 Contemporary accounts suggest that the conditions in which prisoners lived at Arch Street were intentionally kept dismal as an attempt by city officials to prevent recidivism in a population who, it was commonly believed, was suffering from impoverishment as a result of their own immoral actions.6 How should we remember Unis Maria Quin, knowing that thousands of people like her were incarcerated for being unhoused in the early nineteenth century? How can we commemorate the historical experiences of people such as Quin, knowing that thousands of people are arrested for loitering, camping in public spaces, sleeping on park benches, and asking for food or cash on our sidewalks in the early twenty-first century?

The Arch Street Prison had been surrounded by a high stone wall, looming ominously as a warning to city residents to toe the line and pray for good fortune. During the cholera epidemic, a quasi-mutiny nearly sent prisoners clambering over the wall. As the death toll within the prison rose, the people incarcerated at Arch Street implored the warden to release them, lest they “be kept to die there.” At one point, the jail staff or prisoners themselves must have communicated information to the public about the situation on the inside, because “as knowledge about the conditions in the jail “spread over the city,” a “general alarm” was raised. Before long, a “mob…collected outside of the walls” of the jail. So many people swarmed the jail that the keepers were forced to “remove the dead bodies from the prison through a back gate,” from which they were dispatched “into a large ditch or trench in the potters field.”7 Philadelphia’s, and specifically the Arch Street Prison’s, experiences during the 1832 cholera epidemic instigated a public dialogue about the living conditions of the unhoused and poor incarcerated populations. In the months and years immediately following the epidemic, city residents and officials investigated the causes of the high death toll and experiences of the unhoused. They published reports and pamphlets about the “tale of horror” experienced by the people trapped inside, thereby engaging in a commemorative practice of sorts. In an illustrated encyclopedia of Philadelphia published in 1839, the entry for “epidemic cholera” explained the city’s experience in 1832 by detailing what happened in the Arch Street Prison.8 The effects of the epidemic on the most vulnerable members of their society led to a reevaluation of how they were treated and how their needs should be met. This process may have contributed to the jail’s eventual demolition just a few years later.

The jail has been almost forgotten; it rarely appears in studies of carceral history, despite the outsize role played by Philadelphia’s prisons and jails in American penal history as the home of the “penitentiary revolution.” But it was central to the city’s attempts to reduce the visibility of poverty and crime as a way to prevent what historian Michael Meranze has described as “mimetic corruption,” the fear that by seeing “lawless” or immoral people others would become more likely to commit crimes. In reality, it criminalized the activities of people experiencing poverty. The absence of historical recognition or interpretation of these phenomena on our landscape could be viewed as doubling down on this approach. This site offers valuable perspective on how people living under these laws viewed others experiencing poverty and houselessness.9 This history is inherently worthy of documentation, but the question of how it might be commemorated in the twenty-first century presents a challenge, pressing us to ask: in our own century’s “post-pandemic” moment, how are we acknowledging and responding to the experiences and needs of our most vulnerable community members?10

Trying to get a sense of the space where the Arch Street Prison stood and how it would have looked to Unis Maria Quin, who was incarcerated there for a month in 1832, I visited the former site of the jail. I walked around the original site’s perimeter, considering what role a historical marker or interpretive signage could play in commemorating the complex history of the criminalization of poverty that led to the construction of this jail. I’ve spent almost a decade thinking about the people unceremoniously snatched off of the streets of Philadelphia and thrown into this jail and others across early America, but that story is contained almost entirely in the archival sources on which I based my research about this prison and the vagrancy laws that landed people there. As I have laid the groundwork to propose a historical marker at the site of the prison, I have considered questions of audience in the present. Who would see this marker on a daily basis? For whom would it have meaning? How would people experiencing houselessness in the twenty-first century read a description of a space where others were punished for that same experience two hundred years earlier? What meaning can this sort of interpretation hold or not hold for them? Can commemorating and interpreting this history help them meet their needs in any way?

Thomas Paine Plaza, which now covers the land where the jail once stood, is utilized by unhoused people for sleeping, eating, socializing, and other survival activities. The individuals who use this space on a daily basis share much of Unis Maria Quin’s physical circumstances, seeking meals and beds. The legacy of the jail is embodied in their experiences, even as the built environment admits no knowledge of its existence. At this site, in the summer of 2020 during a Black Lives Matter protest, a battle over memorialization played out when demonstrators targeted the statue of Frank Rizzo, which stood on the plaza in front of the Philadelphia Municipal Services building. Rizzo was Philadelphia police commissioner from 1967–71 and mayor of Philadelphia from 1972–80, and left behind a deep legacy of racist policing and brutality, specifically against African Americans.11 Rizzo’s tenure also maintained a legacy inherited from generations of policies criminalizing people experiencing homelessness and poverty; in 1987, in an election campaign, he advocated for the arrest of unhoused people, arguing that the city’s homeless population should be charged with vagrancy and forcibly removed from the streets, even though vagrancy laws were declared unconstitutional in 1972.12 His statue stood at the site of the city’s nineteenth-century vagrant jail from 1998 until it was removed in 2020, partially in response to protestors’ demands.13

How can a site like this one, and stories like Quin’s, instigate conversations about the complex web of systemic classism, carcerality, structural racism, patriarchy, and personal circumstances that have shaped our lives for centuries? There are hundreds if not thousands of similar sites across the country that offer a similar catalyst to public engagement around histories of poverty and punishment; Arch Street was not unique as a space in which people were punished or incarcerated for experiencing homelessness. But it has provided me with a concrete case study through which to consider commemorative and interpretive practices surrounding the experiences of the poor and unhoused, and to reconsider the tools and methods we might use to share public historical work with these populations. This article explores the commemorative landscape of houselessness and poverty in the United States and United Kingdom and examines how public historians approach the practical work of interpreting and commemorating these histories in partnership with stakeholder communities. It includes a brief survey of organizations and projects engaged in efforts to fill these gaps, such as the Museum of Homelessness in London, and the methods they use to work with and for community members with experience of houselessness. Ultimately, I argue that increased stakeholder engagement, collaborative curation, and interdisciplinary interpretation of these histories can fill important gaps in the commemorative landscape of the US and the UK, amplifying community voices in public dialogue about these themes, and contribute to efforts to destigmatize houselessness and poverty.

About a quarter of one percent of the US historical markers listed in the Historical Marker Database as of January 2021 acknowledge the existence of people experiencing poverty; even fewer acknowledge the existence of houselessness. Across the entirety of the country, a few dozen markers stand at the locations of poor farms, almshouses, and potter’s fields. There are hundreds for philanthropic sites or organizations—orphanages, hospitals, the Red Cross. But few even begin to hint at the experiences of unhoused and impoverished people. Nearly all the markers that mention the poor are found at sites of charity, and almost none of them describe the conditions of poverty or the uncharitable ways governments and their neighbors alike treated the poor. The landscape of poverty commemoration is a largely rose-colored one.14

Of course, markers aren’t the primary means by which most of us learn history, and many view them as an old-fashioned or outdated commemorative method. But on the existing landscape, we are presented with an answer to a question that hasn’t been asked: there are markers noting the provision of charitable aid, the existence of potter’s fields, and a few preserved poor farms, without an explanation of what brought them into existence, without a reference to the experience of destitution or houselessness.15 Markers, of course, are succinct by necessity and cannot explain all the social phenomena with which each one is associated.16 Few among the museums and historic sites that define the public historical and cultural landscape go much further, however, in their acknowledgment or interpretation of these themes. There are, of course, a few notable exceptions, some of which will be explored here. But homelessness has scarcely been centered in public history interpretation, and poverty and people experiencing poverty are rarely commemorated or interpreted at historic sites or in museum exhibits. For example, in one of the very few preserved poorhouses in the United States, the Greene County Museum in rural Pennsylvania, the cells where people experiencing homelessness were incarcerated are used for ghost tours and described as the “creepiest parts of the museum,” with no explanation of the process of criminalizing people experiencing poverty that led to the creation of these cells.17 As public historian Meighen Katz has argued, even in exhibitions about the Great Depression—the period in US history in which people are probably most expecting to hear about homelessness—the topic is rarely addressed. Katz argues this is a result of the “challenges faced when trying to create inclusive public discourses that incorporate the experiences of marginalized subsections into mainstream narrative,” because “examining these interpretations necessitates discussions about identity and belonging, about the universality of experience, and about issues of spectacle and constructions of normalcy.”18 Interpreting houselessness in museums, historic sites, and markers would require frank consideration of the class divisions and inequities in our histories and our present. Even museums and sites that have tried to take such an approach have been wary of going too far. In the UK, The Workhouse, a National Trust-operated museum in Southwell, has been pushing the boundaries on drawing connections between past and present around poverty since it opened in the late 1990s. It invited visitors to consider where “people from the work-house” in the 1830s would “be today,” depicting split images of the bodies of individuals “with one-half dressed in 1830s clothing, and the other in modern-day attire.” Although the National Trust was willing to display this history, it shied away from placing any blame on individuals, government policy, or systems that shaped the work-house, arguing that it was not their “place to judge or pronounce.”19

The people and experiences left off markers and out of museums aren’t uncommon, niche, or narrowly focused stories limited to urban areas or relevant for only tiny sections of the population; rather, homelessness, poverty, and precarity have defined daily life in the United States and globally for thousands upon thousands of our neighbors, past and present. Commemoration is a form of storytelling, and the stories of people such as Unis Maria Quin and others who have survived the streets and jails of our communities should encourage us to expand our definitions of inclusion and representation in public historical narratives. Especially in the “post-pandemic” moment when the ranks of the poor and housing insecure have risen dramatically, the political zeitgeist has poised us for a deeper evaluation of the role of class in our society, as countless commentators have argued in recent years.20 A 2018 national study indicated that just under half of the households in the United States, approximately 42 percent, struggled to afford basic necessities like food and housing; 13 percent (16 million) of US households reported total income below the Federal Poverty Level, and another 29 percent (35 million households) earned above the Federal Poverty Level but still less than the cost of living in their county.21 How can public historians leverage whatever privilege and resources we have to create and support spaces for people experiencing poverty to tell their own stories in the present and to argue for inclusion and recognition of homelessness in public historical interpretation that matches strides we’ve been making in recent years around how race, ethnicity, and gender are interpreted? This is an opportunity to foreground larger histories of labor and inequality by historicizing poverty and subsistence in public history sites and scholarship. Although depiction of a specific social group in an exhibition or commemorative representation does not necessarily mean that group will be interested in engaging with those products of public history, it does ensure that nearly half the population of the nation could find experiences relevant to them reflected in a public history space. Museums and historic sites may not be the most common sources of historical knowledge for Americans, but they remain the sources described as most trustworthy. As pundits and politicians argue over the significance of class divides and how to address the crisis of homelessness in the twenty-first century, public historians have the tools to provide a forum for the public to evaluate their own understanding of histories of poverty and housing insecurity in the United States.22

As scholars working on the presentation of many different forms of “difficult histories” to broad audiences have argued, these “histories serve as tools that are necessary for living and make us more self-aware by contributing to collective memory, identity making, commemoration, grieving, nation building, empathy, and trials for social justice and human rights.” They “can provide us with opportunities to learn about the formation of historical and current social structures.” More public historians and community organizers, advocates, and scholars are beginning to use the methods and spaces of public history to tell these stories. These efforts to “uncover histories that had been traditionally marginalized or silenced [are] a positive signal that the larger society recognizes that the histories of the oppressed, underprivileged, and minority populations matter.”23 What principles and methods should we follow as organizations work to expand the communities they aim to serve and seek to preserve and share histories of poverty and homelessness? Co-creation, co-curation, and co-determination of priorities in public history praxis can blend a professional mandate to preserve, interpret, and make accessible with a human mandate to listen to and serve the needs of our neighbors. As Viv Golding and Wayne Modest argued in 2013, there are important distinctions between tokenistic participation and true collaboration, which practitioners have grown more sensitive about in recent years.24 Interest in the last decade or two in museum accessibility, debates over monuments, the growth of #museumsarenotneutral, and other discussions have been priming public historians for these conversations as the institutions in which many of us work are taking more seriously the role of the museum as a tool in the arsenal for social justice.25 What happens when these models are applied to histories of homelessness?

There are a few excellent examples of how public history institutions and projects have incorporated collaborative methods to interpret houselessness alongside community members, beginning to bridge the gap in public historical interpretations of these topics. One institution that has integrated these methods thoroughly into its mission is the Museum of Homelessness (MOH) in London, which is described by its founders as a social justice museum responsive to the everyday realities of homelessness.26 Its engagement with the subsistence struggles of unhoused communities has led to an ethos of flexibility and responsiveness to its community’s needs, reflective of a larger, growing movement to reconfigure museums as spaces for civic engagement and community service.

The MOH takes this further, though, than a traditional institution conducting community outreach or offering free public engagement programs. As cofounder Jess Turtle wrote in 2020, “a 21st century museum is sometimes an exhibition, sometimes an emergency aid hub, sometimes a law clinic, sometimes a bloc in a march.”27 She and cofounder Matt Turtle, along with a volunteer decision-making body comprised of people with direct experience of homelessness, have designed the museum to acknowledge the experiences and serve the needs of their stakeholders. They address historical contexts for individual experiences and cultural representations of homelessness and poverty, but not in the way a traditional museum might using more typical curatorial approaches. Their flexibility stems in part from their lack of a permanent, publicly accessible location, although that has not deterred them from interpreting community and national histories through their exhibitions, events, and engagement. “We definitely are a historical institution,” Matt Turtle shared with me in an early 2021 interview. After interacting with performances of oral histories, exhibitions, and the museum’s collections, participants have “immediately been able to draw the parallels between stuff like the Vagrancy Act of 1824 and its application” and “their own experience.” Their work interprets “things that are sort of age-old,” such as inequality, poverty, and homelessness, looking at both historical and contemporary contexts. The museum staff report that most people who engage with their work are “not surprised” by the histories or personal experiences they’re encountering and “see the value of having an institution that’s dedicated to unpacking it because they want to see it change.” The curators assert that this is “one of the validating reasons for the MOH.”28

Jess and Matt Turtle, cofounders of Museum of Homelessness, with plinths showing the Museum’s collection in the Street Museum installation in London. (Museum of Homelessness)

Jess and Matt Turtle, cofounders of Museum of Homelessness, with plinths showing the Museum’s collection in the Street Museum installation in London. (Museum of Homelessness)

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The founders of the MOH knew “from the very beginning” that they would focus on tackling historical and contemporary contexts simultaneously, while also working within and alongside stakeholder communities. They believed they could “offer insights into some of the things that have happened that wouldn’t necessarily always be explored in traditional histories of welfare and social change” through the knowledge that comes from experiencing poverty and houselessness. Their goal was to create “a people-first museum” where “the museum was playing a role in things around us [and] looking at the structural causes of homelessness.” The co-founders explain,

History tells us that change happens quite slowly and only really happens if people ask questions they might have never asked before or investigate things that they’ve never managed to do before. That’s what we’re trying to do at MOH, to push some of those narratives and ask those sorts of questions which might probe people into thinking differently. It’s not easy but that’s where we’re trying to do with the MOH…play a role in what is an age-old battle of trying to tackle inequality and poverty.29

During the COVID-19 pandemic, they expanded their outreach by implementing a mobile “street museum” to share subsistence goods with community members, as well as to share the museum’s collections. They offered “hot meals…[to] people who are living or working at street level…[and] even repurposed [their] museum shelving to store dried goods and cans.”30 Not every museum or public history agency would have the capacity to pursue this level of engagement. Yet the MOH’s founders emphasize that “unless you’re really of those communities and working with and for [them], ” cultivating human connection and sense of mutuality, “how are people ever going to really open up to you and therefore how are you ever going to document the histories of those communities and share them?”31 This “people-first” approach to museum praxis foregrounds community relationships, leading to a focus on survival both in meeting the needs of their constituencies as well as in their interpretation and curation.

The museum’s all-volunteer team views the MOH’s responsibility to its community members as one that should be mutually defined. Their work with material culture reflects this; their object collection bears no labels; instead, nearly all objects are accompanied by an oral history shared by the donor or creator. The objects themselves range from a prosthetic leg to a pack of cigarettes to the wrapper of a free sandwich shared by a community kitchen. People’s interactions with these artifacts go a step further than many other museum’s handling collections. Audience members are invited to “really connect with that object in relation to the person behind it.” All of the donors and creators are anonymous, so participants only see “the story of the object.” This allows the MOH to “connect people away from perhaps some of the individualizing narratives around homelessness,” which often place blame on individuals for making choices that led to their impoverishment or houselessness. The objects become almost narrators themselves. With this technique, the MOH hopes to prevent these objects being used to affirm narratives of personal responsibility that ignore broader structural inequities. “Museums,” the curators argue, “usually hold great treasures like paintings in golden frames, marble statues, or grand old books. Our treasures might look ordinary in comparison—they include bin bags, tobacco, and a comb. But each is a fragment of a life lived. The stories they tell challenge stereotypes about what it means to be homeless and reveal a history that’s too often hidden.”32

This structural interpretation of material culture related to homelessness arises from the team’s intention to be “conscious of how a museum of homelessness might be seen as something quite voyeuristic” and cautiously seeking to avoid any actions that could be interpreted along those lines as just another bout of “poverty porn.” In some MOH programs and on the collections page of their website, actors deliver the testimony recorded during the interviews with the creators and donors of the museum’s objects, allowing audiences to learn from and reflect on the experience shared by the donor and the meaning they imbued onto the object. This allows the curators to foreground the direct experiences of the historical actors and contemporary stakeholders without asking anyone to repeat sometimes traumatic narratives in front of audiences.33

Since its founding in 2015, the museum has helped contribute to a public history landscape in the United Kingdom that is open to critically analyzing social class inequities. There are several preserved workhouse sites which interpret histories of poverty, social welfare, and carceral histories and even a recently formed Workhouse Museum Network.34 The Workhouse Museum in Ripon, England, is notable for its focus on bridging historical and contemporary understandings of homelessness and vagrancy. In 2019, they worked with several social services agencies in the surrounding area to curate the Rogues and Vagabonds exhibition, which interpreted the criminalization of homelessness in the nineteenth century while sharing narratives from and images of people currently experiencing homelessness.35 The Stray Voices Project (2017–18), sponsored by Institute of Historical Research at the School of Advanced Study at the University of London, produced public talks and walking tours and released interpretive material featuring the voices of unhoused people in the archives “to stimulate insight into the buried stories of homeless men and women whose voices remain silent or unheeded within the historical record.” They involved “specialists in the history of vagrancy, creative practitioners, community activists, members of the public and [people] who have experience of homelessness in a shared conversation about how history has shaped our preconceptions relating to those with ‘no fixed abode.’” One particularly compelling event sponsored by the project was “Without Visible Means,” a day-long, research-led walk retracing the steps of a late nineteenth-century journalist who went undercover with “tramps” in Hertfordshire to document their struggles for survival.36

Still image from a short documentary about the “Without Visible Means” Walk conducted by the Stray Voices Project in 2017. (Harriet Jones; Stray Voices Project)

Still image from a short documentary about the “Without Visible Means” Walk conducted by the Stray Voices Project in 2017. (Harriet Jones; Stray Voices Project)

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Outreach to stakeholders has become an essential element of even the most traditional museums, public history sites, and agencies, as the 2015 Homes of the Homeless exhibition at the Geffrye Museum of the Home in England demonstrates—something the curators and historians behind it thoughtfully wrote about shortly after in the Journal of Victorian Culture. Although the main exhibition interpreting poverty and homelessness in Victorian England had been curated entirely by professional academics and museum staff, the team ran a companion exhibition comprised of creative artistic responses to the content from the Victorian era by homeless youth living in shelters in the twenty-first century. One of the young collaborators wrote a poem, displayed in the companion exhibition, about the continuity of the experience of poverty and houselessness across the centuries, with the echoing refrain “nothing has changed.”37 This sentiment encapsulates the value of putting the past and present in conversation around the issue of houselessness, inviting audience members and scholars to consider together how the experience of poverty has and has not evolved, charting continuity and change, and exploring the causality of the events we can chart on historical timelines and those standing as hurdles to imagining contemporary solutions.

Public history and humanities nonprofit organizations like the MOH are increasingly turning to theatrical and other artistic and performance methods to share community-generated narratives. Beginning in the 1980s, the Los Angeles Poverty Department, self-described as the first performance group comprised of people experiencing homelessness in the United States, used theater to share the experiences of the unhoused and poor communities in Skid Row and as a platform for advocacy. Over the past decade or two, there has been a spate of plays and other theatrical productions based on the experiences, testimonies, and oral histories of people experiencing homelessness. Theatre of the Oppressed’s 2012 performance The Worm in the Big Apple featured anecdotes and performances from unhoused actors living with HIV/AIDS in New York City. In the UK, theater group Cardboard Citizens has been producing similar work since the 1990s. Roughly Speaking, a play by Shara Ashley Zeiger performed off-Broadway in 2016, received positive reviews across the New York theater scene. The play’s theater also exhibited a small collection of cardboard signs ubiquitously associated with people experiencing homelessness.38 One example of an imaginative series of projects blending creative production, oral histories, and public historical interpretation is the work of Cynthia Miller, including Histories and Homelessness, a community-based life-writing project, and Images from the Streets, a disposable-camera documentary project in which unhoused individuals crafted visual and written narratives about their experiences with poverty and housing insecurity, with a place-based interpretive structure, exploring Boston’s histories of homelessness.39 These projects represent an adherence among public humanists to the findings of recent studies that facts and evidence alone are insufficient to build empathy outside of one’s sociocultural groups or convince people to change their minds about specific policy issues such as climate change, abortion, or vaccines. Storytelling, however—even a single anecdote about an individual’s experience—can increase understanding, build empathy, and change minds.40

A recent series of projects produced by the community-engaged collective coLAB Arts based in New Brunswick, New Jersey—37 Voices, the Neilson Street Project, and Shelter (some of which I have been engaged with in different capacities)—have focused on the creation of a digital archive of oral histories with unhoused, housing-insecure, and impoverished community members as a source base for generating new artistic and theatrical productions, as well as to create a searchable and annotated digital archive of testimonies for use by advocacy organizations and scholars. The 37 Voices project in particular aimed to create a source base of oral histories that could fill a conceptual and administrative gap in understandings of the contemporary experience of poverty. Thirty-seven interviews were recorded with individuals experiencing poverty and housing insecurity to represent the 37 percent of New Jerseyans who fell within the “ALICE” threshold (Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed) in 2016—people who made enough money for their income to be considered above the federal poverty level but not enough money to subsist in their community. This project was a partnership between coLAB Arts and the United Way of Northern New Jersey, with a goal of creating a resource that journalists, policymakers, and advocates could use to explain this nuanced, definitional category on an experiential level.41 Across the board, these projects rely on deep relationship-building with community organizations and stakeholders; historical and contemporary policy research to create commissions for new visual art, theatrical performances, podcast development, and creative pedagogy; and facilitated dialogues between advocates, community members, and scholars about the experience of poverty and houselessness.

Although many of the project collaborators have experiences with poverty and houselessness, there have still been some unanswered questions around audience. How can public historians and community organizations create tools, art, and engagement opportunities that provide nourishment, enrichment, and recognition for our unhoused community members while also working to build empathy and engagement from the rest of the community? CoLAB has tried to answer these questions by structuring projects in ways that showcase the ideas and engagement methods that stakeholder narrators and contributors have shared and co-developing programming that centers their stories, often verbatim, through monologues and other performances.42 In the Neilson Street Project, for example, we asked narrators in oral history interviews what they wished people knew about their experiences and then based subsequent programming decisions on those responses. Local playwrights were commissioned to write a script for a performance featuring the oral histories recorded during the project, imagining the stories they shared as a conversation over a cup of coffee. The play was performed in winter of 2021 (over Zoom due to the COVID-19 pandemic) and accompanied by free meal and warm beverage distribution across the city of New Brunswick, including at Elijah’s Promise, the community kitchen where the narrators had been interviewed the year before. The play was screened in the space where narrators had shared their stories, with organizers inviting them to speak to the audience, share their feedback, and reflect on the themes of the project, with the hope of ensuring that community voices led the dialogue at each stage.

One of the core concerns in theatrical, artistic, and oral-narrative-centered projects such as these is intentional recognition of the humanity of people experiencing poverty and homelessness who are so often subject to dehumanization. As one anonymous narrator in the Neilson Street Project shared, that when living in public spaces, many community members “treat you like you’re not even a human being anymore.”43 As museum educator Rose Paquet Kinsley noted in 2012, until quite recently “museums have primarily addressed homelessness as a topic to be exhibited, not as a group of people to engage with,” which has often been depersonalizing.44 One MOH exhibition, Objectified, which featured twenty objects used or created by people with direct experience of homelessness, was designed to explore this process and experience by centering the neuroscience of dehumanization and marginalization.45 At the crux of the exhibit was an argument that by creating opportunities for people to encounter tangible evidence from people’s lived experience of homelessness, as well as their personal narratives and experiences, their minds would be changed, “altering how the brain responds to homelessness.” Living history practitioners have championed similar methods. As Tyler Putnam wrote in 2019, public historians should be asking,

How do we instill historical empathy for people in the past we are used to deriding or forgetting? What if you came face-to-face with one of them? Living history interpretation—costumed programs using first- or third-person speaking techniques—can evoke the mindsets and experiences not just of famous people (long the subject of theatrical performances) but also of everyday people—old and young, male and female, free and enslaved, specific and generic—in a particular historical moment.46

Living history interpretation as well as intentional docent recruiting practices at historic sites and museums can serve similar goals as these projects to document, interpret, and commemorate histories of poverty and houselessness in an effort to combat the dehumanization that often accompanies these experiences. Just across the city from the site of the Arch Street Prison discussed at the beginning of this article, Eastern State Penitentiary Historic Site operates a docent program for tours of the site led by formerly incarcerated people, inviting guides to draw connections between the experiences of the penitentiary’s residents in the nineteenth century and their own experiences on the inside.47

Some of the narrators in these recent oral history projects on which I’ve worked have their own clear agendas for how this historical empathy should be developed. When one of the housing insecure narrators from the Shelter Project was furloughed from a county jail in the summer of 2020 due to the pandemic, he agreed to sit down for an oral history interview because he viewed the project as “making history.” And he knew how he wanted that history to be understood, reporting that, “I would like to make people aware that the individuals that are incarcerated are still people at the end of the day.” Storytelling has shaped our understanding of the world for millennia; stories are the fundamental base for our interpretation of our past and our present. With the Neilson Street and Shelter projects, we set out to record the stories of people experiencing poverty, housing insecurity, and food insecurity. Our goal with these interviews was to facilitate storytelling between local community members, acknowledging the value not only of essential tangible resources like food, shelter, and medicine, but also of the ability to shape one’s own story and how one is understood by one’s neighbors. Storytelling and public history practice supports this kind of collective care, creating spaces and leveraging resources for people to set the terms for how we understand the personhood of individuals within our communities. Alongside contributing to ensuring that our neighbors’ needs are met and their humanity is respected, engaged, empathetic listening is central to practicing active care for our communities and stewardship of our shared histories. One narrator for the Neilson Street Project, Tony, experienced homelessness for six years, sleeping on benches at the train station and in parks, without telling any of his family members. “I was so embarrassed,” he said, “I didn’t tell nobody…never told them nothing. Never told nobody. ‘Til now.”48 The stigma around poverty and houselessness is so profound and pervasive that it often prevents people from seeking the resources they need to survive. I share a core belief with Tony and many of the other narrators in these projects: storytelling, through oral history and commemorative or interpretive public history projects, can prove a vital tool in destigmatization efforts around these themes. Narrators on these projects reported that learning about and discussing the histories of people who experienced poverty centuries before themselves decreased their sense of alienation and stigma.49

Projects like those described above are indebted to the pioneering work of oral historian Daniel Kerr, who led the Cleveland Homeless Oral History Project in Ohio, in which he embedded himself for nearly a decade. His relationship with the community led to the recording of more than two hundred oral histories with people experiencing homelessness. Preserved and incorporated into academic scholarship as well as public-facing forums and media, including radio broadcasts, this project and others he has pursued since, such as the Homeless Voices Amplification Cooperative in Washington, DC, have included elements of activism—specifically, mobilizing the expertise of the unhoused and working-class people behind issues that matter to them. Kerr’s oral histories are unique in the genre because they strayed from the traditional, life-course oral history model and instead asked participants about both their everyday experiences as well as their views on social policy, politics, and methods for improving the material conditions of unhoused populations’ lives.

The field is beginning to see more representation of the experiences of housing-insecure populations in carefully crafted projects, often picking up threads begun by advocacy or arts groups and joining them with public history or humanities methods. Many are indebted to oral history praxis and oral history archives. The Just Shelter Project, for example, by Evicted author Matthew Desmond and the related 2018 exhibit Evicted at the National Building Museum have shown how a person’s experience of poverty and housing insecurity frequently involves policing and punishment. The Museum of Street Culture in Dallas, Texas, has produced several collaborative outdoor exhibitions featuring artistic and historical representations of homelessness. In 2019, the Wood County Historical Center in Bowling Green, Ohio, displayed “For Comfort and Convenience”: Public Charity in Ohio By Way of the Poor Farm, an exhibition designed to interpret the experiences of impoverished people living at the Wood County Poor Farm in the nineteenth century in order to “humanize individuals who had been stereotyped and dehumanized in institutional contexts.”50 The History Colorado Center curated an exhibit called Searching for Home in 2016 that had begun with a curator’s acquisition of the cardboard signs of several unhoused members of the Denver, Colorado, community, for which the “curators collaborated with community partners including formerly homeless individuals and members of Denver-area organizations that provide support for people experiencing homelessness.” According to public historian Julie Peterson, the exhibition team viewed this project as a way to support the organization’s goal of becoming “a center for civic engagement,” using first-person testimony and community-led interpretation to examine complicated histories and contemporary experiences of homelessness.51 These efforts reflect the political dialogues that have defined the past decade—the majority of the projects referenced here began around 2015 as awareness of the stratification of wealth in the United States grew more mainstream and the effects of the Occupy movement, the Black Lives Matter movement, and conversations surrounding the 2016 election and Brexit led to greater focus on intersectional social inequities.

Many of these projects mark movement toward commemoration and public histories of homelessness on two fronts: documentation and representation. They reflect efforts of advocacy organizations and public historians sharing and preserving histories while serving communities. This opens up new avenues for public and social historians to listen, acknowledge, and amplify the voices we encounter in the archive, to put them into conversation with our neighbors in the present, in order to actually interpret these histories within our institutions and across our landscapes. Notably, nearly all of these projects are based in clearly defined, geographically formed communities, such as exhibitions addressing houselessness in a single city. This allows public historians to focus on the granular details of their local community’s experiences, but also suggests that there is an opportunity for a broader effort to explore these themes on a national level.52

In the popular history podcast Revisionist History, host and award-winning author Malcolm Gladwell questions the received wisdom about commonplace phenomena. In an episode from the show’s fifth season which originally aired in 2020, “A Memorial for the Living,” he semi-subtly pitched a question to public historians: should huge sums of money be directed toward commemoration and memorialization when they could instead go to helping the vulnerable, especially the unhoused and poor, survive? Can we read our society’s decisions about how we spend our money as an argument about whose history and whose present matters? Gladwell spends the length of an episode exploring the origins, development, and expense of the 9/11 Museum and Memorial alongside a parallel examination of the ways in which social service agencies and advocates track the numbers and needs of unhoused populations in Jacksonville, Florida, through a point-in-time count. These counts, which are conducted across the country in late January each year, create one of the most useful data sets for estimating how many people are experiencing houselessness at a given point in time, including, importantly, those who are outside of shelters or beyond the reach of philanthropic networks. This particular city’s data gleaned from the point-in-time count is represented in a scatterplot comprised of small human figures across a numerical chart, to denote the humanity of the individuals represented by these plot points.53

Gladwell details the symbolism and cost of the solidification of memory through the 9/11 commemorations, while noting how few dollars it would ultimately take to house the unhoused in one American city for a month. He describes the point-in-time count data as a memorial to the living and the 9/11 site as a memorial to the dead. What are the costs of commemoration? At the 9/11 Memorial, $700 million. What are the costs of declining to acknowledge and commemorate the poor and the unhoused? This parallel examination invites us to view the historical and contemporary data documenting experiences of homelessness as societal value judgments. For public historians in particular, these questions ask us to consider what has caused many practitioners to avoid commemorating or interpreting the histories of the poor. As Meighan Katz has noted, “fears of Othering” and “further objectification” of their subjects remain an undercurrent of concern among those curators interpreting traumatized, oppressed, or deprived populations. In discussing their misgivings about the interpretation of poverty within museums during interviews, curators drew connections to dark tourism and expressed a fear of emphasizing “the strangeness of the poor.”54

This is a valid concern and these ethical considerations, including those that extend to collaborative work with unhoused and impoverished communities, should drive decision-making in how to address these histories. When one is directly addressing subsistence in one’s interpretation, spending money on projects that are not essential for survival can feel, and may actually be, insensitive or unethical. But where are we without them? Whether or not museums, historical markers, or public history projects are interpreting the experiences of houselessness and poverty, there are artifacts, monuments, and memorials that tell these stories, with or without us. They’re just often not in the forms or spaces we normally look for them; they are the bars and spikes across park benches, the “hobo bumpers” and “no loitering” signs that mark our cities and towns with hostile architecture. The material culture of homelessness is in these spaces and objects. This is the lens through which the curators of the MOH, for example, interpret the bureaucratic document known as an ASBO, or “Anti-Social Behavior Order,” a document police use daily to remove unhoused people from public spaces, in their collections.55 For public historians, it shouldn’t be about whether this is the next gap we are going to fill in a long line of narratives underrepresented by commemoration, but, rather, the question is, if we leave these histories uninterpreted or uncommemorated, how will our existing landscape be read when nearly all that can be found are barriers to survival?

Historian Jessica Gerrard and sociologist David Farrugia have argued that “the development of a social understanding of homelessness is as much constituted by the act of representation, as it is the ‘actual’ experience of homelessness.”56 This invites a viewing of representation and, as a result, commemoration as constitutive of the story and history of homelessness; it invites consideration of commemorative practice as an essential expression of solidarity, which often bridges into territories of memorialization. In 2017, the MOH began tracking how many lives of unhoused people are lost each year through the Homeless Memorial Project. Currently a digital memorial, the museum staff hope to establish a physical memorial site as soon as funding and location can be secured. In the meantime, they light candles in honor of those who have died. Since 1990, homeless advocacy organizations in the US have commemorated Homeless Persons’ Memorial Day on the longest night of the year, the winter solstice, usually with a candlelight vigil. In Philadelphia in 2018, a year in which 270 people in the city died without shelter, the citywide memorial service was held in the Arch Street United Methodist Church, which stands just across the street from the site of the Arch Street Prison. Although the histories of houselessness in Philadelphia and in London are strikingly distinct in many ways, these kinds of memorialization efforts connect contemporary lived experience with deep histories by acknowledging the elements of survival and loss that transcend time and place.

Homelessness and poverty are often discussed in contemporary public life in ahistorical terms—either as inevitable universals or as uniquely modern emergencies resulting from our present-day circumstances. Interpreting poverty and homelessness on historical markers and commemorating them in museum exhibits will help denaturalize them, creating opportunities to consider how the social conditions that have led to them have been and continue to be constructed. Currently, their absence on the commemorative landscape reifies social expectations of an invisible underclass. Filling it with representation might shape some individual perceptions of homelessness but may not solve much on its own. But deep community connection that leads to both interpersonal empathy as well as actual policy change, alongside mutual aid efforts such as those employed by the MOH, offer a model for the integration of survival assistance into the work of public history. As public historians work toward more representative and inclusive commemorative practices, can we fill the gaps on homelessness and poverty? In doing so, can we contribute in one small way to the work of advocates seeking to destigmatize these experiences and thus improve the lives of our community members?

Although there are many critical questions remaining, especially about how public historians can ethically and effectively work alongside people experiencing poverty and homelessness to ensure that our public memory of and dialogue about these issues reflect our most important stakeholders in these issues, commemoration offers us a starting point. Public historian Seth Bruggeman has argued that “commemoration dwells almost entirely in feeling.” The personal and relational shifts that result from stakeholder-directed commemorative practice on topics such as these have the potential to hold deep affective power that will shape the views of community members in ways that may lead to actual material differences in the lives of people experiencing houselessness and poverty.57 On an immediate level, nearly all of the public history projects discussed above involve direct compensation in the form of wages or honoraria for the participants experiencing houselessness. For the MOH, the distribution of food and personal hygiene items to unhoused people is a core function of their community role as a museum. With the Shelter Project, the documentation of oral histories, curation of an exhibition, and development of community-engaged public arts projects were written into the same grant proposal that requested funding for the emergency rehousing of people who had lost their shelter during the pandemic. The project asked: “How do you ‘shelter in place’ when you have no shelter?” By securing funds for rapid rehousing, the project aimed to resolve that question, while the public history and humanities elements of the project aimed to answer the question. Other similar projects are more directly tied to mutual aid, such as an artist’s residency associated with the Neilson Street Project, which led to the creation of a “Social Pharmacy,” a free exchange kit of home remedies developed with people using the services offered by a local community kitchen, where they documented stories, rituals, and personal health practices to empower and provide for each other’s physical needs.58 Small interventions such as these may not pull any individual out of poverty or houselessness permanently, but they do create relationships and networks that link social services with humanities methods in ways that assert the value of human connection and historical narratives in shaping how we view our place in the world.

At the broadest level, destigmatizing homelessness through the methods employed by the MOH and others can lead people to vote differently when, for example, the construction of a new emergency shelter is proposed by their city council, or to respond differently when they encounter someone asking for food outside a train station. While teaching a history course called “History of Homelessness: Unhoused Populations in US History” in the fall of 2021, I assigned transcripts of the oral histories collected during the Neilson Street, 37 Voices, and Shelter projects alongside records generated following interviews with people admitted to almshouses in the nineteenth century. Students reported being confronted with clearer visions of the human beings behind the terms we use to describe houselessness, developing more nuanced understandings of what causes homelessness, complicating and sometimes debunking stereotypes about unhoused populations. A voluntary, anonymous survey shared with the ninety-eight students enrolled in this course resulted in fifty-six responses; of those fifty-six respondents, fifty-five believed there should be more interpretation and commemoration of histories of homelessness in the United States. Documentation and preservation serve more than a rhetorical or archival purpose; as the quotation from the interview with Tony above indicates, oral histories, exhibitions, and collaborative curation and interpretation can destigmatize homelessness and poverty by inviting viewers and visitors into the human experiences of individuals and their own place on the spectrum of financial and housing security, changing the way they view and treat their neighbors and leading to redistribution of resources within communities.

Commemorative practice has always drawn heavily on a belief in historical solidarity. In regards to how unhoused people today might experience commemorations of homelessness and poverty, we might ask if these individuals’ perceptions of their own socioeconomic status and their interactions with the criminal justice system or welfare systems could change after intimate engagement with the narratives of people in similar circumstances two hundred years earlier. How might the ubiquity of their struggle across time be counterbalanced by the nuance and particularities of each historical period? Ultimately, (public) historians are storytellers, and not likely to eradicate major economic crises on their own; we should not delude ourselves that we will be the ones to solve centuries-old crises with museum exhibitions. An oral history project is no substitute for policy change. But stories are powerful, and interpretations of the past in concert with explorations of the present can help us understand that phenomena such as poverty and houselessness, and institutions such as prisons, are not inevitable. They are part of a malleable past, present, and future that we can shape by understanding historical cause and effect, documenting continuity and change, and catalyzing communal resources around shared knowledge production, public space, and the means of subsistence. In 2018, a federal court ruled that the laws used to police and punish unhoused people for sleeping outdoors or residing in public spaces might violate the Eighth Amendment, which prohibits cruel and unusual punishment, because unhoused people often have no other places to sleep or live.59 By seeing the links that connect the experience of homelessness and incarceration in the nineteenth century with arrests for loitering and sleeping outdoors in the twenty-first, we can build solidarity across the centuries that can influence policy change.


Commitment of Unis Maria Quin, Vagrant Dockets, 1832–36, Philadelphia Prisons System, Philadelphia City Archives, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The story that follows here about Unis Maria Quin and the Arch Street Prison is discussed in detail in Kristin O’Brassill-Kulfan, Vagrants and Vagabonds: Poverty and Mobility in the Early American Republic (New York: New York University Press, 2019) and “‘Severe Punishment for Their Misfortunes and Poverty’: Philadelphia’s Arch Street Jail, 1804–1837,” in “Incarceration in Pennsylvania History,” Jen Manion, ed., special issue, Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography 143, no. 3 (October 2019): 247–69.


This Anglo-American legal context supports looking at the commemoration of the lives of people affected by these laws in the United States and United Kingdom in tandem, along with the public historians engaged in exploring these histories, so I have focused on examples from these two countries here.


Minutes of the Board of Inspectors of the County Prison, 1821–27, Guardians of the Poor, Philadelphia City Archives; Michael B. Katz, The Undeserving Poor: America’s Enduring Confrontation with Poverty (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013) and In the Shadow of the Poorhouse: A Social History of Welfare (New York: Basic, 1996), 18–22. On the lives and experiences of people experiencing homelessness and poverty throughout US history, see Kenneth Kusmer, Down and Out, On the Road: The Homeless in American History (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002); Tim Cresswell, The Tramp in America (London: Reaktion, 2001); Todd DePastino, Citizen Hobo: How a Century of Homelessness Shaped America (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003); Mark Wyman, Hoboes: Bindlestiffs, Fruit Tramps, and the Harvesting of the West (New York: Hill and Wang, 2010); Frank Tobias Higbie, Indispensable Outcasts: Hobo Workers and Community in the American Midwest, 1880–1930 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2003); Seth Rockman, Scraping By: Wage Labor, Slavery, and Survival in Early Baltimore (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009); Billy G. Smith, The “Lower Sort”: Philadelphia’s Laboring People, 1750–1800 (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1990); Billy G. Smith, Down and Out in Early America (University Park: Penn State University Press, 2010); Billy G. Smith and Simon Middleton, Class Matters: Early North America and the Atlantic World (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008); Jen Manion, Liberty’s Prisoners: Carceral Culture in Early America (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015); Simon Newman, Embodied History: The Lives of the Poor in Early Philadelphia (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2003); Simon Newman and Billy G. Smith, “Incarcerated Innocents,” in Buried Lives: Incarcerated in Early America, ed. Michelle Lise Tarter and Richard Bell (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2012), 60–84; Ruth Wallis Herndon, Unwelcome Americans: Living on the Margin in Early New England (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2001); Cornelia H. Dayton and Sharon V. Salinger, Robert Love’s Warnings: Searching for Strangers in Colonial Boston (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania, 2014); Eric Monkkonen, Walking to Work: Tramps in America, 1790–1935 (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1984); Priscilla Ferguson Clement, Welfare and the Poor in the Nineteenth-Century City (Cranbury, NJ: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1985); Risa Goluboff, Vagrant Nation: Police Power, Constitutional Change, and the Making of the 1960s (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016).


A Tale of Horror! Giving an Authentic Account of the Dreadful Scenes that Took Place in the Arch Street Prison (Philadelphia, 1832); Manion, Liberty’s Prisoners, 181–82.


Report of the Committee Appointed to Investigate the Local Causes of Cholera (Harrisburg, PA: Welsh, 1833).


Katz, The Undeserving Poor, 1–2.


Tale of Horror, 4.


Daniel Bowen, A History of Philadelphia: With a Notice of Villages, in the Vicinity Containing a Correct Account of the City Improvements, Up to the Year 1839 (Philadelphia: Bowen, 1839).


An etymological note: “homelessness” is the most commonly used term to describe the condition of living without a permanent residence, outdoors, “on the street,” or in a government or charitable shelter. In recent years, “unhoused” or “houseless” has begun to emerge as a preferred alternative to “homeless” when describing the status of individuals. Many advocates use both terms, as do many individuals experiencing homelessness. Both terms will be used throughout this article, because many unhoused people have created homes for themselves that don’t meet the standard or legal definitions of these terms, meaning that “homeless” doesn’t necessarily apply; in other cases, the term “homeless” is more appropriate if an individual is unhoused because of exclusionary policies or painful personal experiences. In my own conversations with people with experience of homelessness/houselessness, as an oral history interviewer as well as a family member, friend, and neighbor, the term I have heard most often has been “homeless.” In an effort to reflect efforts to recognize the agency and experiences of these individuals, I’ll use both terms here.


Michael Meranze, Laboratories of Virtue: Punishment, Revolution, and Authority in Philadelphia, 1760–1835 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1996), 8.


Tajah Ebram, “‘Can’t Jail the Revolution’: Policing, Protest, and the MOVE Organization in Philadelphia’s Carceral Landscape,” in “Incarceration in Pennsylvania History,” 333–62; Timothy J. Lombardo, Blue-Collar Conservatism: Frank Rizzo’s Philadelphia and Populist Politics (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2018).


“Rizzo Defends Plan to Lock Up Homeless as Compassionate,” Associated Press, May 5, 1987; Goluboff, Vagrant Nation.


Jon Hurdle and Maria Cramer, “Philadelphia Removes Statue Seen as Symbol of Racism and Police Abuse,” New York Times, June 3, 2020.


J. J. Prats, “Welcome to the Historical Marker Database,” Historical Marker Database,; Michel-Rolph Trouillot, Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History (Boston: Beacon Press, 2015), 5–6.


This is a symptom of what Jessica Gerrard and David Farrugia have explained as the positioning of homelessness as a visual discourse within public space in which homelessness is viewed as “‘out of joint’ in relation to the spatial and aesthetic logic of capital and capitalism…the ‘sight’ and ‘scene’ of homelessness appear as stains and blights on the city space, whilst the infiltration of capital in public space appears customary and common sense.” Jessica Gerrard and David Farrugia, “The ‘Lamentable Sight’ of Homelessness and the Society of the Spectacle,” Urban Studies 52, no. 12 (2015): 2221.


Far from being an “old fashioned, tired form of public history,” in many cases markers “stir more public discussion about history” than other common forms of interpretation, according to Jennifer Dickey in “‘Cameos of History’ on the Landscape: The Changes and Challenges of Georgia’s Historical Marker Program,” The Public Historian 42, no. 2 (May 2020): 33–55. Recent work by the Equal Justice Initiative commemorating the sites of lynchings across the United States and other efforts to tell often-ignored histories on commemorative markers have shown that they are a “viable mechanism for interpreting the past and shaping its memory.” Jane McFadden, “Equal Justice Initiative Legacy Museum: ‘From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration,’” Journal of American History 106, no. 3 (December 2019): 703–8. Lest these statements be used to support the maintenance of monuments to white supremacy or other lost causes, I will state clearly here that I am not arguing that all important historical topics or themes require a presence on our landscape in the form of monuments or markers. There is a clear distinction between markers and monuments that invite analysis of relationships between historical and contemporary themes and those that seek to celebrate or glorify colonialism and racism.


“Exhibits,” Greene County Historical Society Museum,


Meighen S. Katz, “‘Only the Most Morbid Among the Rich Will Find It Entertaining’: Interpreting 1930s Urban Homelessness in Museums,” Journal of Urban History 44, no. 2 (March 2018) 278–97.


Liz Sevcenko, Public History for a Post-Truth Era: Fighting Denial through Memory Movements (New York: Routledge, 2022), 32–35.


Nancy Isenberg, White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America (New York: Penguin, 2016); Taylor Telford, “Income Inequality in America Is the Highest It’s Been Since Census Bureau Started Tracking It, Data Shows,” Washington Post, September 26, 2019; Kevin Uhrmacher, “Where 2020 Democrats Stand on Economic Inequality,” Washington Post, April 8, 2020; Katherine Schaeffer, “6 Facts About Economic Inequality in the U.S.,” Pew Research Center, February 7, 2020; Juliana Measce Horowitz, Ruth Igielnik, and Rakesh Kochhar, “Most Americans Say There Is Too Much Economic Inequality in the U.S., But Fewer Than Half Call It a Top Priority,” Pew Research Center, January 2, 2020; Riordan Frost, “Homelessness Was on the Rise, Even Before the Pandemic,” Joint Center for Housing Studies of Harvard University, December 16, 2020; Samantha Shapiro, “The Children in the Shadows: New York City’s Homeless Students,” New York Times, September 9, 2020.


ALICE Threshold, 2018; American Community Survey, 2018; “On Uneven Ground: ALICE and Financial Hardship in the U.S.,” United for ALICE 2020 National Report.


Peter Burkholder and Dana Schaffer, History, the Past, and Public Culture: Results from a National Survey (Washington, DC: American Historical Association, 2021).


Julia Rose, Interpreting Difficult History at Museums and Historic Sites (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2016), 4.


Viv Golding and Wayne Modest, Museums and Communities: Curators, Collections and Collaboration (London: Bloomsbury, 2013).


Mike Murawski, Museums as Agents of Change: A Guide to Becoming a Changemaker (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield), 2021.


Jessica Turtle and Matthew Turtle, “Rewriting the Script: Power and Change through a Museum of Homelessness,” in Museums and Social Change: Challenging the Unhelpful Museum, ed. Adele Chynoweth et al. (Abingdon, UK: Routledge, 2020).


“Museums as First Responders: Museum of Homelessness,” Center for the Future of Museums Blog, American Alliance of Museums, December 1, 2020, This expansive framing of the work of museums also reflects recent discussions about how museums should be defined, notably in the contentious debates surrounding the International Council of Museums’ effort to revise their definition of a museum, which concluded in August 2022,


Matt Turtle (co-founder, Museum of Homelessness), interviewed by author, London, UK, January 19, 2021.


Turtle interview, 2021.


“Museums as First Responders.”


Turtle interview, 2021.


Objectified, Manchester Art Gallery and Museum of Homelessness, October 2018, See cover image for an example.


Turtle interview, 2021.


The Workhouse Museum Network is “a group of separate museums whose primary objective is preserving the history of welfare in Britain since the 18th century,” consisting of Southwell Workhouse, Ripon Workhouse, Gressen Hall, Weaver Hall, Vestry House Museum, Llanfyllin Workhouse, Thackray Medical Museum, and the Spike Surrey Workhouse. More information can be found at their website:


Rogues and Vagabonds: An Exhibition Exploring Historic and Contemporary Homelessness in Yorkshire, Ripon Museums, Ripon, United Kingdom, 2019.


“Stray Voices: The Unsettled History of Homelessness,” Institute for Historical Research, School of Advanced Study, University of London, 2017–2018,


Jane Hamlett and Hannah Fleming, “Curating ‘Homes of the Homeless,’” Journal of Victorian Culture 23, no. 2 (April 2018): 207–19.


“LAPD History,” Los Angeles Poverty Department,; Sam Levin, “Theatre of the Oppressed Brings Homeless Actors to the Stage Tonight,” Village Voice, February 6, 2012; Andrew Gans, “Casting Set for Roughly Speaking, New Off-Broadway Play with Rap,” Playbill, October 4, 2016; Adrian Jackson, “Homeless Actors Offer a Rawness That Outweighs a Lack of Formal Skills,” Guardian, June 23, 2016.


Cynthia J. Miller, “Memories from the Margins: Stories and Images of Urban Homelessness,” Linguaculture 3, no. 1 (2012): 79–91.


Groups like the scholars and community activists affiliated with the Humanities Action Lab based at Rutgers University–Newark are building translocal storytelling communities that put historical knowledge, contemporary experience, and future-oriented policy change discussions into the same dialogue. Rose Hendricks, “Communicating Climate Change: Focus on the Framing, Not Just the Facts,” Conversation, March 5, 2017; Brett Davidson, “Storytelling and Evidence-based Policy: Lessons from the Grey Literature,” Humanities and Social Sciences Communications 3 (2017); Elizabeth Kolbert, “Why Facts Don’t Change Our Minds,” New Yorker, February 27, 2017; Julie Beck, “This Article Won’t Change Your Mind,” Atlantic, March 13, 2017; Alice G. Walton, “In Stressful Times, People Listen More to Anecdotes Than to Facts, Study Finds,” Forbes, April 6, 2020.


Interview with Dan Swern, Producing Director of coLAB Arts, May 22, 2019. See and United for Alice for more information about the population represented in 37 Voices and the story behind the project:


See coLAB Arts, for more details about Shelter, 37 Voices, and the Neilson Street Project.


Anonymous, interview by author, February 24, 2020, transcript, coLAB Arts Digital Oral History Archive, New Brunswick, NJ.


Rose Paquet Kinsley, “Engaging with Homeless Adults in Museums: Considerations for Where to Begin,” Museums & Social Issues: A Journal of Reflective Discourse 8, no. 1 (2013).


Objectified, Manchester Art Gallery and Museum of Homelessness, October 2018,


Tyler Rudd Putman, “Occupied Philadelphia: An Experiment in Urban Living History,” The Public Historian 41, no. 3 (August 2019): 31–48.


Jessica Lussenhop, “Inside Decaying US Prison, Former Inmates Are Guides,” BBC News Magazine, May 11, 2016.


Tony Harris, interview by author, February 24, 2020, transcript, coLAB Arts Digital Oral History Archive, New Brunswick, NJ.


coLAB Arts Digital Oral History Archives for: Neilson Street Project, 37 Voices, and Shelter Project, New Brunswick, NJ,


Holly Hartlerode, “Project Showcase: ‘For Comfort and Convenience’: Poverty and Material Culture,” History@Work, May 9, 2019.


Julie Peterson, review of Searching for Home: Homelessness in Colorado History, History Colorado Center, Denver, CO, The Public Historian 39, no. 1 (February 2017): 91–96.


Recent museum studies scholarship has also noted that the majority of institutions leading the field on community-engaged curatorial practice and visitor services are small, specialized museums. Adele Chynoweth et al., eds., Museums and Social Change: Challenging the Unhelpful Museum (Abingdon, UK: Routledge, 2020); United States Department of Housing and Urban Development, “House America,” This new plan involves following “housing first” principles as opposed to requiring individuals to jump through layers of bureaucratic hoops before accessing lifesaving housing.


Malcom Gladwell, “A Memorial for the Living,” August 8, 2020, in Revisionist History, podcast, It is interesting to note that Gladwell’s example of a city’s process for the point-in-time count is drawn from Jacksonville, FL, the city that was represented in Papachristou v Jacksonville, the US Supreme Court case that led to vagrancy laws—the laws that criminalized homelessness for centuries in the US and UK, and beyond—being declared unconstitutional in 1972. Vagrancy laws were implemented subjectively, with notorious abuse by law enforcement; the laws gave them the power to arrest anyone who appeared to be poor on prima facie evidence alone. Gladwell himself has been accused of supporting one of the much-maligned policies that were created in the vacuum left by vagrancy laws, stop-and-frisk. See Risa Goluboff, “It Took 20 Years to Shoot Down Vagrancy Laws. Then We Got Stop-and-frisk,” Salon, February 15, 2016,; and “Shattering Broken Windows,” Columbia Law School News, April 8, 2015,; Papachristou v City of Jacksonville, 405 U.S. 156, 92 S. Ct. 839 (1972), “Point-in-Time Count and Housing Inventory Count,” US Department of Housing and Urban Development, (2022).


Katz, “Only the Most Morbid,” 290; Andrea Witcomb, “Using Immersive and Interactive Approaches to Interpreting Traumatic Experiences for Tourists: Potentials and Limitations,” in Heritage and Tourism: Place, Encounter, Engagement, ed. Russell Staiff, Robyn Bushell, and Steve Watson (Abingdon, UK: Routledge, 2013), 153, 158.


Objects and Collections, Museum of Homelessness.


Gerrard and Farrugia, “Lamentable Sight,” 2223.


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