As immigrants flooded to America from Europe, they discovered that finding jobs and homes was often harder than they’d expected. Thousands of people came to New York City every year and there weren’t enough resources to go around.
These people ended up living in the streets, homeless. Their children often had it even worse.
- Poor children in cities were often sent to almshouses, or poor houses. These places were filthy and full of disease. Here children lived with people who were mentally ill or had committed crimes. They were treated very harshly, often given little to eat, and made to work long hours.
- Many children ran away from the almshouses. Living in the streets, they hunted through trash cans for food or stole it. If they were caught stealing, they were sent to jail.
- Babies whose mothers were too poor to care for them went to foundling houses. These places were also cold and dark. Most babies didn’t survive.
- Leaders in New York and other cities realized they needed better solutions. In 1854, hostels opened in New York. Street children who spent their days selling newspapers, chestnuts, and ears of corn or other items could sleep at a hostel and get a meal for just a few pennies each day. The children weren’t getting an education, medical care, or love, but at least they had shelter.
- Another idea was the orphan train. For over 20 years, orphaned and homeless children in New York City were sent west by train. The trains stopped at towns along the way and the children would gather in the train station or a church for people to visit them.
- The relief agencies in New York sponsoring the orphans had placed advertisements in magazines showing clean, happy, adorable children in need of good homes.
- People in the West and Midwest were often eager to adopt these children, sometimes because they felt it was the right thing to do and they wanted to help; more often, they were looking for free help for their farms.
- The children often struggled to adapt to their new lives. They often had emotional and physical health problems caused by their previous experiences.
- In some cases, the children were adopted into wonderful, loving families who gave them a fresh start in life. Many children were treated harshly by their adopted families though.
- Orphan: someone whose parents have died
- Almshouse: a place for the poor or mentally ill
Questions and Answers
Question: Why didn’t more people try to help the children?
Answer: There are many reasons. People felt prejudice toward immigrants, the mentally ill, and the poor. They often believed that the poor were lazy, dishonest, or bad.
They thought these people needed and deserved poor treatment to make them behave better. In the 1800s, there were no laws or services to protect the poor, and especially, children. Individuals, families, and churches were expected to take care of them but that didn’t always work very well.
How do you think we’re doing today? Do you ever see signs of similar attitudes or prejudices?
Read about the experiences of modern refugees and immigrants and find out how you can help.