1856

"Houseless and Hungry" in Household Words, Charles Dickens

Household Words was written for middle class consumption, especially those with societal influence. For those who could afford it, the monthly magazine offered its readership a selection of both fiction and non-fiction pieces. The volumes included exposés on conditions of the poor, such as Charles Dickens' feature “Houseless and Hungry.”

Dickens reported on his experience inside the a refuge of the Society for the Relief of the Houseless Poor in Playhouse Yard, London, which he calls The Houseless Poor Asylum. Established in 1819, The Houseless Poor Asylum is one of London’s first homelessness charities, which offered a place of refuge to those turned away from the capital’s workhouses and casual wards. The charity’s efforts were funded by philanthropic professionals, who originally founded the society in response to the lack of government initiative to house the destitute in London.

According to Dickens, the refuge took in an average of 550 people a night in 1856, though it could accommodate as many as 600. These numbers are considerable, especially considering that a person’s stay was limited to 3 nights if you were from London and 7 if you were from the country. As people queued for entrance, Dickens notes the resemblances in each applicant’s story. Many travelled from the country to find work in London, but were unsuccessful and had nowhere else to go. Others were Londoners, who also could not find work, and were refused entry into the workhouses.

His observations of the inside reveal nothing but misery: people brooding, hopeless, ill from disease and starvation, too tired to create any disturbances. Dickens’ account appeals to the social conscience of his readers, as he details the realities of human suffering.

Before Dickens paints a picture of his visit, he mentions the opinions of his two friends, which conveniently resemble popular views of the destitute. One complains there is no reason for destitution in London, for there are “hospitals for the sick, and workhouses for the infirm,” only the idle and debauched are without a home. In his friend's eyes, charitable refuges like the Asylum only foster laziness and vice. Besides, impostors fill the beds of the charitable shelters. In response, Dickens writes something all too familiar: “it is the story of the many punished for the faults of the few”. 

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